A History of Charter Schools

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A History of Charter Schools

The insurgency of charter schools is taking the United States by storm, but what most people do not know is the history of these     schools – and how that history, in the new model of education reform, is essentially being ignored.

    An article from the New York Review of Books critiques Davis  Guggenheim’s recent documentary film, Waiting for “Superman,” a film that talks about the charter school movement, largely painting it as a solution to the failing education system in the United States. What the film does not examine is the origin of charter schools.

While serving an over 20 year term as president of the American Federation of Teachers, in 1988, Albert Shanker came up with the idea for the creation of a new face for public education. In his dream, a group of capable and dedicated teachers would come together and create a new school that centered its resources on the students with the highest needs: low income kids who had already dropped out or were disengaged enough to be on a fast track to prolonged truancy and likely to leave school.

Shanker’s original idea was for an educational experience that would work collaboratively within the public school system, acting as a supportive alternative to traditional public education, ultimately helping to engage students who had become disinterested in school and were at a high risk for dropping out.

Five years after he came up with the idea, Shanker dropped it quickly. Within less than half a decade, charter schools had been overtaken by for-profit organizations that seized the idea as an opportunity for business, advocating a plan for the privatization of public education.

Since Shanker’s denunciation of the charter movement in 1993, it has taken off as the solution to the failing public education system     in the United States. Rather than working collaboratively with public schools, with the implementation of high-stakes testing as a result of No Child Left Behind, charter schools have become competitors. As such, traditional public schools now have two options: improve test scores or be shut down.

    As it turns out, charter schools are doing the work to improve standardized test scores, but at a price. Geoffrey Canada, the creator of the Harlem Children’s Zone, even went so far as to un-enroll an entire class of middle schoolers who did not achieve scores that were high enough to be considered satisfactory. These kids are not documented as part of the so-called staggering improvement in test scores that the charter movement promises.

The thing is, there is no school situation that can fully deny the experiences of children who grow up in poverty. Instead of creating a holistic support system for these kids, the charter movement – and, indeed, public schools in general – are now required to go solely by standardized test performance or risk losing everything.

    For more background, history and information, read the New York Review of Books article, “The Myth of Charter Schools.”

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