Inside Charter Schools

Brett Johnson

After working as the band director at a charter school in Colorado for five years, and writing my master’s thesis on the structures and challenges for the performing arts in charter schools, I simply urge everyone to consider the research out there. NCSPE, CREDO, NCEO, and CRPE have generated a broad range of research results on charter schools. On the whole, the research suggests that while charters are sometimes not as terrible as opponents suggest, many models have not produced the results that proponents have promised. Some models have demonstrated promising results and may be worth replicating.

Charter schools sound great on the surface– they promise innovation and efficiency with results, and there is a degree of truth in that. However, the research for my thesis showed there is a great deal of uncertainty about their effectiveness in test results, ability to serve communities in an equitable manner, and their capacity to educate the whole child. After sputtering and hoping to gain enough students to survive, many schools simply do not survive infancy, amounting to millions in wasted taxpayer dollars. A study by NCSPE suggests that charters actually spend MORE on administration than traditional public schools, pulling resources away from instruction, compensation, etc.

I commend my own former charter school employer for being supportive in building our performing arts program, and encouraging me to experiment and think outside the box. After being skeptical about both charter schools and prescribed curriculum, I have become highly supportive of Core Knowledge, which many schools around the country use as a roadmap to cover a broad range of fundamental knowledge and skills over a span of several years. Information is connected and spirals forward in a cross-curricular fashion. I found the gradual introduction of music history topics to be a welcome addition to the music performance fundamentals I was already teaching. Developing this hybrid curriculum was certainly helped by working at Twin Peaks, as they encouraged me to try new, innovative approaches in the classroom. Unfortunately, only a few of the hundred charter schools in Colorado are able to adequately fund and support robust performing arts programs, according to my master's thesis survey results.

The average amount of teaching experience at charter schools is typically much lower than that of traditional public schools, and this was readily visible in my own experience. This tends to create a “novice culture” among teachers at these schools who have fresh ideas, but do not have the years of growth it takes to get good at it. Some teachers are fired due to perceived poor performance by adminstrators. I’ve observed some of my peers go through this, and it’s not fun to watch, but honestly some of them were either ineffective or demonstrated highly-inappropriate behaviors. Beyond that, many teachers simply leave for better opportunities to support themselves and their families. This is partly due to lower salaries/benefits, but also because we had zero collective representation. Finally, funny things can happen when a few very powerful individuals are running the show. Administrators must respond to their policy votes, and often respond to their personal demands. From time to time, this dynamic directly affected my classroom in both positive and negative ways. I stayed as long as I did despite my concerns because I built a program that I was proud of and had great support from administration. Most of all, leaving behind relationships with students, families and colleagues was tough.

There are clearly some positive aspects about at least some charter schools, but we need to acknowledge and address the shortcomings if they are to become successful and sustainable. I am very interested in watching the charter school phenomenon unfold here in Washington state. Officials appear to be selecting charter school applicants very carefully, as many of them have been denied. Three have been approved to open in Tacoma in 2015: Green Dot Charter Middle School, SOAR K-8 Academy, and Summit Olympus High School. Even after working in a charter school for 5 years, I still have lots of questions about them. They seem to be corporate-run entities that have minimal grassroots community support. What is the agenda of these entities? Do those agendas truly serve students and empower teachers? Will the arts be supported as well as they are in other public schools? Will all district families have equal access? How will they attract, retain and reward quality teachers? Will teachers have some form of representation to address their concerns? How will these schools be financed for long-term viability? How will they interact with school districts, and who will cover what costs? Time will surely tell.

For those who wish to dig deeper into the research on charter schools, I highly recommend reading this report.