the Debate on Charters and Vouchers
“Proponents of educational equity cannot be effective
as “the party of ‘no,” was the theme
of the session on charters and education. The panel
of experts—including Leigh Dingerson, author of
Reclaiming the Education Charter: Ohio’s Experiment
with Charter Schooling, Susan Nogan, a senior policy
researcher at the National Educators’ Association,
and Richard Shapiro, counsel for the defendant school
districts in Crawford v. Davy—proposed
policy advocacy and public relations strategies as methods
for reframing the debate over education reform.
Regulation for Innovation: Charters as a Supplement
to—not a Substitute for— Public Schools
Dingerson argued that charter schools are both improving
and working to "dismantle" public education.
In her comprehensive study of Ohio charter schools,
she found that, while many charters serve as laboratories
for developing innovative curricula and best practices,
others run by for-profit companies provide the same
or lower quality instruction as traditional public schools.
She recounted the histories of two drastically different
schools—the Inter-generational School and the
International Preparatory School—to illustrate
the potential and pitfalls of charters.
The Inter-Generational School in Cleveland, founded
in 2002 by experienced educators and an expert in child
psychology, frames instruction around developmental
stages instead of grade levels and promotes interaction
across age groups. K-6 students are placed into 4 "learner"
categories, where older students have the opportunity
to mentor their younger peers. Additionally, the school
connects students to senior citizens--students teach
computer literacy, while seniors provide help with reading
and math. In spite of educators' refusal to "teach
to the test," the state of Ohio has consistently
rated the Inter-Generational School as "effective"
or "excellent," and the Cleveland Municipal
District is working to replicate its curriculum.
Established in 1999, the for-profit International Preparatory
School exemplifies the sham side of the charter school
movement. Administrators promised to provide students
with foreign language courses, international travel
experience and hands-on learning. Over the next 6 years,
the school failed to provide textbooks and computers,
offered no language classes beyond the introductory
level, failed to meet state academic requirements, and
amassed over 1 million dollars in debt.
Dingerson believes that both schools reflect the state
of charter schools in Ohio. Deceptive and ineffective
charter school experiences could have been prevented
by greater government regulation. She argued that advocates
of educational equity should work to create a set of
standards and state regulations that determine if and
how charter schools benefit the public school system,
and support those charters that work best.
Reclaiming Public Opinion and Traditional Constituencies
in the Voucher Debate
Nogan and Shapiro focused on the voucher debate. Like
Dingerson, they argued that proponents of educational
equity should not take defensive positions. Instead,
they advocated a coordinated media strategy to present
alternative proposals for education reform to the public.
Nogan noted that presenting evidence on the inefficacy
of voucher programs alone casts public school advocates
as supporters of the status quo; a more productive tack
would be to promote policies “better than”
vouchers. She noted that studies show that, when presented
with a menu of education policy choices, respondents
ranked vouchers well below programs like early childhood
education and after school programs.
Similarly, Shapiro argued that there must be a concerted
effort to counter the “effective marketing”
of voucher proponents. He shared that traditional constituencies—people
of color and the urban poor—overwhelmingly support
the plaintiffs in the Crawford v. Davy voucher lawsuit.
In his view, education reformers must acknowledge the
failures of public school systems in addition to exposing
the realities of voucher (and charter) programs in order
to reclaim this support base. He also stressed the need
for acquiring and disseminating hard data on the efficacy,
potential segregative effects and incidences of corruption
in charter and voucher programs.