Julian Vasquez Heilig: Charters are quite diverse. Just the word can set off critics and supporters. The challenge, as I see it, is to decouple the persona of charters from the positive and negative realities of their diversity.
Heilig: The types of charters and the chartering process varies greatly from state to state. So I think we have to decide as a nation what types of charters we really desire. For example, compare for-profit charters with community-based charters.
The issue with for-profit charters is the same issue that we often face with corporate malfeasance—the profit motive can overwhelm honesty and integrity. We thereby sacrifice serving students regardless of their circumstance, an important aspect of our national social contract for public education. We must also consider the quasi-private policies found in many corporate charters that have implications for equity and excellence.
By comparison, a charter school like Travis Heights Elementary in Austin, Texas, where the local school district, parents, teachers union, and faith community came together to build a community-based charter school, is a welcome contrast to corporate, profit-driven charter schools.
Heilig: Charter governance differs across states. For example, in Michigan, 61% of charters are run on a for-profit basis. An important question for the nation is whether we think charters on a for-profit basis are a desirable approach. We also need to consider whether communities should be able to veto corporate charters and for-profit charters if they so choose.
I also think we need to reframe our conception of choice. Why can’t communities access desirable characteristics in their neighborhood traditional schools? Why have Louisiana and Michigan created achievement authorities that turn a blind ear to community input? Who is actually doing the choosing for our communities? Also, we must continue to grapple with the question of whether the freedom that charters have received is being abused. Equity and access for students of different kinds and workplace conditions for faculty and staff are important questions that we are continually grappling with in our ongoing research.
Heilig: I don’t think we should limit ourselves to the current state of charters. Instead, I think we need to consider what the evolution of charters will be. Yes it is true that in most states charters are not for-profit. But we already have plenty of data and research to understand the pitfalls of for-profit charters in Michigan, Arizona and elsewhere. The Detroit Free Press recently conducted several investigative reports of charters in Michigan that uncovered wasteful spending, lack of accountability, nepotism, and corruption. Further, overall charter performance was no better than traditional public school performance.