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Keeping the Promise?: The Debate over Charter Schools

reviewed by Lisa M. Stulberg - August 05, 2009

coverTitle: Keeping the Promise?: The Debate over Charter Schools
Author(s): Leigh Dingerson, Barbara Miner, Bob Peterson, and Stephanie Walters (eds.)
Publisher: Rethinking Schools, Milwaukee
ISBN: 0942961382, Pages: 144, Year: 2008
Search for book at Amazon.com

As a progressive supporter of charter schooling, I have spent years trying to puzzle through what a politically and educationally progressive vision of charter schools looks like. How can I be both pro-union and pro-charter? How can I both support the concept of racial and economic integration in schooling and support race-specific charter school missions and schools that, by virtue of residential segregation, still lack racial and/or economic diversity? How can I believe that strong public oversight and support are often necessary to ensure high-quality charter schooling and believe that communities and local schools should have broad freedom to define their educational needs? How can I recognize the limitations of standardized testing and be critical of the poorly-designed examples of these tests and the curricular restrictions they place on charter schools and still believe that all students should be taught so that they can excel on standardized tests? How can I support the development of progressive charter laws and policies, given that charter schools will likely remain part of public education reform in the decades to come? And, finally, what constitutes useful research and useful rhetoric at this stage of the reform?

These are questions with which Keeping the Promise?: The Debate Over Charter Schools could have usefully engaged. Unfortunately, while some of the essays in the collection ask and respond to these tough questions, others do not.

Keeping the Promise? is a collection of essays by political progressives – many of whom are educational practitioners – some of whom seem sympathetic to charters and some of whom are quite skeptical of the public choice reform. The book primarily is concerned with privatization and the role charters play in removing schooling from democratic control. The volume can be read primarily as an addition to the politics of school choice debate, rather than as commentary on that debate. The volume’s essays represent a good contribution to the very small politically progressive literature on current school choice reforms and an even smaller progressive literature that seems open to the potential of these reforms.

I am very sympathetic to the project of the book. But, I wish it had done more. The book’s editors, in their introduction, write that they “offer this collection of essays to promote dialogue on how the charter school movement can fulfill its progressive potential” (p. xii). Some chapters did help me grapple with the complicated questions that face progressive supporters of charter schooling like me. But others simply provided many of the typical arguments that political progressives make against charter schools: that they are anti-equity, pro-market, stealthy vehicles for the privatization and continued segregation of schooling. More specifically, despite the very valuable framing chapters at the beginning and end of the collection, the empirical chapters in the book generally miss opportunities to contribute to a nuanced discussion among progressives about the impact and future of this enduring reform.

For instance, even to me, a sympathetic reader, some of the language in the book is off-putting. In particular, I do not find it helpful to continue to engage in the disingenuous rhetorical device of opposing “charter schools” and “public schools,” as some of the contributors to this volume do. Charters are public schools – publicly funded (often with supplemental private dollars, which should be critically examined, as should the substantial private aid to district schooling), publicly accessible, and the creation and subject of public policy. By continuing to employ the inaccurate rhetorical strategy of opposing charter schools with public schools, we are missing an important opportunity. We are missing the chance to engage in the difficult conversation about how to use public policy to create charter laws and charter schools that are equity-focused, academically rigorous, and accessible and equally beneficial to all.

The three most useful contributions to Keeping the Promise?, in my view, are the two introductory pieces and the concluding chapter. The collection begins with a very good introduction by the book’s editors. It is a useful articulation of the progressive politics of charters and call for a research agenda. The chapter recognizes that the charter movement “has roots in a progressive agenda” (p. xi) but asserts that,

the charter concept also appealed to conservatives wedded to a free-market, privatization agenda. And it is they who, over the past decade, have taken advantage of the conservative domination of national politics to seize the upper hand in the charter school movement. (p. xi)

The chapter asks the important question: where is the charter movement likely to go from here, given the political struggle among progressives and conservatives?

The next chapter in the collection, by Ted Sizer and George Wood, eloquently and creatively uses the charter debate to ask broad questions about the values and purposes of public education. Sizer and Wood write that they “fear that for both traditional and charter schools, the democratic agenda of equity, access, public purpose, and public ownership has eroded in recent decades” (p. 8). They envision the possibility that charter schools could be part of broader public school reform efforts, helping to open up all public schooling, and they offer some policy suggestions toward this end. They also provide very useful “five guiding questions” (p. 8) that progressives can and should ask when evaluating charter reforms.

The book ends with a final framing piece, an analysis by Linda Darling-Hammond and Kenneth Montgomery, which acknowledges the “complexities” (p. 93) – and the potential – of charter schooling. Darling-Hammond and Montgomery usefully recognize the centrality of policy to the ultimate success or failure of charter schooling. They frame the charter school debate as a site for competing values, and they advocate for a focus on democracy and “democratic values and the importance of a strong public sector” (p. 92). This chapter leaves the reader with concrete and creative policy considerations, ways to build charter schools that have democratic potential.

Unfortunately, the empirical pieces in the collection generally do not measure up to these framing chapters. They are less creative and thought-provoking, and many offer the standard critiques from the Left, without – for the most part – offering much policy analysis or policy alternatives. The book’s five empirical chapters are four case studies, including very critical looks at privatization and charter schooling in New Orleans, Ohio, and the District of Columbia, and one chapter that compiles interview responses from three charter school educators. These chapters provide progressive takes on a number of high-profile charter examples throughout the country. In this way, these chapters would be most useful as assigned reading for a course on school choice or education policy. The case studies provide an alternative to the number of charter school collections that take a more zealous, uncritically pro-charter approach to the cases they present.

Here, the chapter by Leigh Dingerson on New Orleans stands out. It is an important, early look at the country’s largest charter school experiment. What happened with public schooling in New Orleans – and the role that charter schools played in the post-Katrina reform – will be the subject of many studies to come. This chapter provides a very critical examination of the rapid growth of charter schooling after Katrina. Dingerson argues that, nationally, “the political, policy, and public relations operations of the charter school movement are almost entirely controlled by its conservative wing.” She writes that “New Orleans was a feast, laid out before them” when Katrina devastated the city (p. 19).

Also useful is a chapter on Boston’s Pilot Schools, a district-charter hybrid model that Dan French writes is an “alternative” to charters (p. 67). This chapter offers the crucial argument that public school change – including change on the part of teacher unions – is necessary: “School districts and teacher unions need radically new partnerships that result in fundamentally different schools” (p. 75). French states that “[t]he Pilot Schools model has the potential to be a centerpiece of this transformation” (p. 76). It is unclear to me, though, why charters cannot be envisioned as part of this overhaul, as well.

The book’s editors write, in their introduction:

If charter school reform is to live up to its initial promises, progressives must regain the initiative and use charter schools to empower teachers and parents, to challenge the dominant narrative in public education of standardization, selectivity, and privilege, and to use those lessons to improve all public schools. (p. xv)

This is a critical goal. But, progressives cannot do this unless we can engage with the tough questions that charter schooling presents. Progressives should not sit on the sidelines of the charter school debate, continuing to produce the same critiques of the choice reform that they have been offering for almost twenty years. They should see charters as an enduring part of the public school landscape and dive into crafting policies and creating schools that reflect and promote progressive values and politics. Keeping the Promise? gives political progressives some tools with which to enter charter school politics and policy-making in earnest. I hope it will be a volume that will be built upon by others who have jumped in as researchers or practitioners to this complicated but hopeful reform and the heated debates that surround it.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 05, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15735, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 6:17:08 PM

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About the Author
  • Lisa Stulberg
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    LISA M. STULBERG is, as of September of 2009, associate professor of educational sociology at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. Her research focuses on the politics of urban schooling, race and education policy, affirmative action in higher education, and school choice policy and politics. She is the author of Race, Schools, and Hope: African Americans and School Choice after Brown (Teachers College Press, 2008) and the co-editor (with Eric Rofes) of The Emancipatory Promise of Charter Schools: Toward a Progressive Politics of School Choice (SUNY Press, 2004). She is the co-editor (with Sharon L. Weinberg) of Diversity in American Higher Education: Toward a More Comprehensive Approach (Routledge, forthcoming). She currently is working on a book with Anthony S. Chen, of the University of Michigan, on affirmative action history and politics in higher education.
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