Julia Lawrence at EducationNews gives us a brief look at some legislative offensives in ongoing charter wars. Georgia is considering a law to allow the state to approve charter schools in a district without the district’s consent, and Mississippi is considering something similar which also allows the state to put charters anywhere, not just in low-performing districts. (It appears that Mississippi law currently only allows charters as a remedial measure.) Perhaps somewhat predictably, district superintendents aren’t thrilled to have their power attacked like this.
The fact that various political entities and individuals are bickering over who gets the power to tax and spend isn’t a terribly interesting one to me; politicians have been fighting over things like that for millennia, and they’d probably fight over it even if everyone completely supported charter schools, because the fights Lawrence is highlighting are, I think, about power, not policy. So I had considered just putting up a post entitled “charter schools” with the text “Discuss”, and letting the usual suspects fly into a frenzy in the comments. That might have been fun to watch.
But I wanted instead to try to focus attention on a very particular issue, raised by a Tennessee superintendent who seems to simply not like the idea of charter schools being approved in his district: poaching. Here’s what he says:
If 17 new charter schools open here in the fall, Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash said he expects to bleed staff as the startups “cannibalize” the city schools, picking at sinews of talent and leaving a weakened system behind.
“Everyone is going to cannibalize our top people,” Cash said. “With the new evaluation system, we now know who our top folks are. Who do you think they are going to be after with every lure, bait and catch you can imagine?”
I was a little shocked when I read this, because it seemed like such an admission of weakness. Essentially, he’s holding up a giant sign that says, “We don’t deserve to survive as an organization.” Can you imagine the CEO of a private company making this sort of complaint in public? He’d be laughed at by the public and removed the next day by the board.
It had always been my impression that charter schools received slightly less funding per student than public schools. (The link is to a New York study, and though one should be mindful of generalizing from a single state, I believe California works similarly.) Given the financial disparity, what “lure, bait, and catch” could charters use that are unavailable to districts?
Teacher-based decision-making, and teacher-involved management might be one draw — but then Superintendent Cash is really just complaining that his serfs are being given their freedom in the next Principality over, and why can’t they just stay in their place like good little peasants. Surely that’s not his argument.
Better working conditions might be a possibility, but why doesn’t the district just improve its working conditions by adopting whatever policies the charter schools adopt? If teachers like a schedule with a few more breaks, then give them a few more breaks. If the charters give teachers more classroom authority, why not give your teachers more classroom authority? If the charters let the teachers pick their own curricular materials, why not do the same?
Perhaps I could understand a complaint that went something like this: the charter schools will take all of our best students. The best teachers and staff will follow the best students because they’re easier to teach. That seems like a legitimate worry about why you’d lose your best teachers. Of course, that just pushes back the problem. Now we have to ask a different version of the same question: why are you losing your best students? Once you think it through, it really starts to look like the Superintendent isn’t just complaining about competition and the fact that it would harm education, but rather he’s complaining about competition and the fact that he (and the district) would lose.
Look, I’m not saying that competition in our education system is going to make things better, not for everybody and maybe not even for the students. I’m not saying that everyone has to like competition; some people really just want their comfortable little slice of the pie. I understand that; it’s a significant part of human nature. We can fight out issues about how much and what types of competition we’ll have in our society in the legislatures.
Fight about power. Fight about policy. But whining about how competition is going to hand you your hat, and using the assertion that your competitors are better than you are to argue that they shouldn’t be allowed to compete really betrays a lack of dignity.