Blog: The Educated Reporter

Two Authors, Two Views on Future of Charter Schools

Authors Richard Whitmire (left) and Richard Kahlenberg speak with EWA's Erik Robelen at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs. (EWA/Emily Richmond)

Where are charter schools headed? Two authors offer different takes on the movement.

A pair of recent books provide notably different takes on the charter schools sector, including its strengths and weaknesses, as well as what the main focus of these public schools of choice should be.

Richard Kahlenberg, the author of A Smarter Charter and a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, said today’s charter schools are a far cry from the vision union leader Albert Shanker put forward in 1988. Shanker, the former president of the American Federation of Teacher, thought charter schools should be teacher-led and foster innovation, Kahlenberg explained at the Education Writers Association’s seminar on charter schools and choice last month in Denver.

Shanker believed charters should be labs where the best ideas can be tested and shared, and where teachers would be empowered, Kahlenberg said. Charters would also be socially and economically integrated. But Kahlenberg argued that the charter sector has failed to live up to its vision, as many are highly segregated, most of the schools are not unionized and struggle with high rates of teacher turnover. And he sees little evidence of innovative practices in most of the schools.

“The idea in some ways has been flipped on its head,” he said.

Kahlenberg was joined on the Feb. 27 panel by Richard Whitmire, author of the 2014 book On the Rocketship, who delved into how top charter schools are raising the bar. Whitmire is a fellow at the Emerson Collective and a former editorial writer and reporter at USA Today.

For his book, Whitmire followed the high-profile Rocketship network through a school year, examining what makes the Rocketship charter school network and other charters successful. (Along the way, he also discovered some of the challenges Rocketship encountered, including a year of disappointing test results.)

Among his observations: Teachers have more of a voice to help student outcomes. Successful charter schools learn from one another. At Rocketship, for example, educators visited high-performing charters in Denver and Memphis, Whitmire said.

“We are on the cusp of something special,” he said.

Much like their books, both Whitmire and Kahlenberg offered two different thoughts on stories reporters should examine.

Whitmire suggested reporters pay attention to the top-performing charter schools that are borrowing from one another. Also look at the relationship between charter schools and districts, he said. How are they working together? Are they sharing resources such as special education?

Kahlenberg, meanwhile, pointed to what he sees as the rising level of teacher dissatisfaction in charter schools. He recalled interviews author Steven Brill conducted with teachers who talked about the experience of burnout in some charters and their decision to leave education.

Teacher turnover rates, teacher voice, collective bargaining and teacher recruitment in charter schools are important issues, he said.

Kahlenberg noted challenges charter schools face in recruiting effective teachers, referencing a study last year that found that high-performing charters tend to be in cities where they can attract bright and talented people.

He also suggested looking at the racial and economic diversity of families served by charter schools. Do families care about diversity or do they want out of neighborhood schools?