Thought Experiment: Is there such a thing as an “Ethical” Charter School?

In my series of rants about charter schools and their discontents, I’ve been accused of being a “lumper” rather than a “splitter.” That is, I’ve been characterizing all charter schools as bastions of segregation, discrimination, military-style “no excuse” discipline systems and political machinations that include busing parents and teachers to “rally for their cause.” Oh, and taking billionaire funding for “astroturf” organizations to promote their wanton destruction of the public school system, inexperienced faculties and overpaid administrators, obsession over test scores and dislocating students who were attending the self-described “failed” school. Did I mention suspension rates that are substantially higher than their local public schools, as well as expulsion of students before the all important state testing season? Have I forgotten to shoot holes in their rigged “lottery” systems that appear to be “fair,” but actually screen out many who might be tempted to make the plunge into this experiment taking public money to fund private education?

Okay, so perhaps I’ve been playing my curmudgeon hand too hard. Maybe I should look at the other side: would it be possible to create an “ethical” charter school? I’ve blogged about this before, but I thought I would actually inject some practical suggestions into the mix. Maybe I could form a rating system that gives a school a “ethical rating,” say from 0 – 10, with 0 being the most unethical charter school around, to 10, being that they are actually building a new model of what a school could be and doing it in a way that “does no harm” to the children around it (as well as those who attend) while justifying the money used by you and me, the taxpayers?

I just would like to point out that among the ArneDuncan-MichelleRhee doomsayers, there are plenty of public schools that are creating beautiful new models of what education can look like. Here is a particularly nice example: the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, which is, what do you know, a PUBLIC school!

So here goes: my attempt at a charter ethical rating scale. I did make a valiant attempt to construct a sliding scale that would allow me to weigh certain attributes over others, but in the end, all I could come up with is what I call “dealbreakers.” If the charter engages in specific practices, then even if the school is themed around saving the earth, bringing peace to warring parties AND preserving liberty and justice for all, then I’m sorry, it’s just not “ethical,” even if you slap that label on it.

• Location: If you’re locating in an underused building and have no intention of displacing students who may already be there, or  you intend to locate in a private space and pay rent for it, then you’ve got my support. If your intention is to “co-locate” in an overcrowded building, ask me to pay your rent and proceed to displace the current students to other locations, well, it can only be one thing: DEALBREAKER 

Fun Fact: Is there a charter school that actually practices this? Apparently, yes, the Brooklyn Prospect Charter School chose to rent space on their own rather than displace students in the building they were sharing. Of course, they can’t pay their administrators $400,000 a year, but in tough times, we all must sacrifice!

• Enrollment: Does your charter set aside spaces for students with learning disabilities and students who require ESL instruction in the same proportion as the local public school? If so, you’ve got my support. If not, DEALBREAKER

Fun Fact:  Although The Ethical Charter School says that it offers an “ethical education” for its students, an enrollment of 12% learners with disabilities and 8% English Language Learners puts it significantly below the District 14 average of 18% and 12% respectively. Where’s the truth in labeling here?

• Support for ELL and LD: Does your charter offer a wide range of services for your ELL students and LD students? This would include a trained ESL teacher who offers both pull-out and push-in instruction. The school must have teachers with training in working with children who have learning disabilities, as well as occupational therapists, mental health professionals, and speech therapists. If so, you’ve got my support. If not: DEALBREAKER

Fun Fact: New York City does not have a single charter school that is dedicated to educating students with learning disabilities. By way of contrast, the NYC Department of Education offers 56 different programs for helping students with learning disabilities.

• Discipline: Does your charter school have reasonable discipline codes that take into account the tremendous variability in mental health and home environment of your students? Do you suspend students at a rate similar to the local public school? If so, you’ve got my support. If not, DEALBREAKER

Fun Fact: Harlem Success 1 boasts a suspension rate of 22%, which is over 3 times that of the local district. I guess all those well-behaved children we see in the advertisements are not angels after all.

• Expenditures on Students: Does your charter spend the same proportion of its money on actual student instruction, or are you using my money to pay your administrators lavish salaries? The NYC public school system is known for its maze-like bureaucracy, so it seems like a “no-brainer” for charters to cut down significantly on administration. If you can devote a greater proportion of your money to students as the local public school, then you’ve got my vote. If not, well, it’s a DEALBREAKER!

Fun Fact: According to a study by the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education, charter schools spend a greater percentage of money on “administration” than their public school peers. Hey, Eva Moscowitz, how’s that $400,000+ yearly salary working for you?

Charter School, have you passed this simple test of your ethics? I’d love to hear from you if you have: I’ll send you my “Ethical Charter School” seal of approval. Actually, let’s wait on that: I have some questions about working conditions for your teachers, billionaire sponsored political lobbying, and claims about your “high performing” students…

About rmberkman

This blog is the sole musings of one Robert M. Berkman, an educator who has taught math, science and technology for the past 30 years in New York. You can react to all his posts by emailing him at
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2 Responses to Thought Experiment: Is there such a thing as an “Ethical” Charter School?

  1. Pingback: What is an Ethical Charter School? | Diane Ravitch's blog

  2. Pingback: What is an Ethical Charter School? | Educational Policy Information

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