Commentary: It is not unfair to hold charters to higher standards
When Albert Shanker, the legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers, advocated for the creation of charter schools in the late 1980s, he envisioned enhanced opportunities for teaching and learning, freed from the bureaucratic constraints of traditional district schools in exchange for increased accountability.
Fast-forward to 1997 and the passage of the Pennsylvania charter law, which required that charters produce better academic performance than district schools in exchange for their greater autonomy.
Such high-minded goals, espoused both by education progressives like Shanker and education conservatives like the Republican majority in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, fall by the wayside in the critiques of the Philadelphia School District’s Charter Schools Office by a charter school founder and the head of a charter advocacy organization. Both contend that the District unfairly holds charters to a higher standard than its own schools. If one follows their argument, a charter could and should be renewed when it never exceeds District averages.
The argument that charters that fail to meet the District’s accountability standards are no worse than some District schools and therefore deserve to be renewed is incredibly cynical. In effect, these critics are saying that it is wrong to expect more autonomous charters serving poor kids to outperform District schools. Their advocacy for lowering the bar implies that low-income children of color are incapable of high performance academically. That is a belief that parents, teachers, principals, employers, elected officials, faith communities, and especially the Board of Education — stakeholders from the corporate boardroom to the corner bodega — should reject loudly and repeatedly.
The “we are no worse” approach of those who would protect low-performing charters brings to mind the observations of an unlikely pair, former President George W. Bush, who condemned “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” and former First Lady Michelle Obama, who insisted that “when they go low, we go high.”
Philadelphia’s Charter Schools Office is in good company in insisting on higher standards.
Debra Weiner is a longtime Philadelphia public education activist who at various times has worked at the District, Community College of Philadelphia, and the college-access nonprofit Philadelphia Futures.