Charter schools, touted as an easy answer to education problems, aren’t an answer at all.
During last month’s presidential debate, Senator Marco Rubio ridiculed GOP frontrunner Donald Trump for his lack of a healthcare plan. When pressed, a nervous Mr. Trump repeated the typical GOP buzz words: “competition,” “health savings accounts,” and “lines around the states,” whatever that means. Rubio continued to mock him until the audience erupted in laughter and applause. It was one of Mr. Trump’s worst debate moments and one of Senator Rubio’s best, because someone had finally called Trump out for lacking a concrete plan on a serious issue.
In a more recent CNN debate, Trump was asked how he would fix education, and he once again spewed conservative talking points. He promised to disband the U.S. Department of Education and eliminate Common Core. He promised us “competitive schools.” He promised (and I quote) “things that are terrific, like charter schools, by the way, that the unions are fighting like crazy. But charter schools work and they work very well.”
I went to private school, but I began my teaching career at a public school, I teach at a public school now, and for two years in between, I taught at a charter school. I’ve seen the whole spectrum of what our education system has to offer, and I can tell you, Mr. Trump, that charter schools do not work very well, especially not when they’re run by people like you, who demonize unions and slap the derogatory label of “bureaucrat” onto anyone working behind the scenes to make schools function.
Mr. Trump comes from a business background, and many of his supporters believe his budgeting and negotiating skills qualify him to run the country. Those who favor charter schools believe these same budgeting and negotiation skills will fix education. They believe that teachers are overpaid thanks to “unions” and overregulated thanks to “bureaucrats.” We teachers don’t believe we are overpaid, but many of us dislike spending thousands of dollars a year on union dues and state licensing fees, especially when our salaries are already so low. So we ally ourselves with anti-teacher conservatives like Mr. Trump and accept jobs with a lower salary, but with fewer regulations and without a union siphoning money out of our paycheck for doing God-knows-what.
Ironically, teaching at a charter school is precisely what makes us teachers understand and appreciate the need for these regulations and unions. Sure, maybe during the first year, we’re happy not to pay union dues or fees, but after years of waiting until the last day of school to find out whether we’ve been rehired, after years of “raises” that are less than the annual cost-of-living increase, after years of constantly-changing policies, constant administrative turnover, students coming and going in the middle of the year, we start to get jealous that our public school counterparts are making $10,000 more than us and already have tenure.
At a public school, the “bureaucrats” ensure that the district hires the best teachers they can afford and gives them whatever resources are necessary to succeed, but at a charter school, the lack of union representation means teachers are generally paid less. This does not mean charter school teachers are worse than public school teachers—many of my own former charter school colleagues were excellent teachers who knowingly took a pay cut because they believed so strongly in the philosophy of the school, but did the fact that they believed in the school mean they deserved less pay and less support than a public school? I didn’t think so, and that’s why I’m glad to now be teaching at a school where the union ensures me a fair wage and the “bureaucrats” ensure me the resources I need.
When Senator Rubio exposed Mr. Trump’s tendency to hire migrant laborers who are easier to exploit, he revealed exactly why charter schools appeal to conservatives. Charter school teachers, like migrant laborers, are willing to work for less money, whether because they are too young and inexperienced to know they deserve more, because they have been let go from another teaching position and feel lucky to have a job at all, or because they believe it would be selfish to ask for a raise. It is disingenuous to call charter schools “competitive,” because while they might be “competing” with other schools for their slice of the district’s tax dollars, their employees often have nowhere else to go. Hence, the salaries are anything but competitive, because the schools feel they are bidding against themselves.
Charter schools like the one I worked at are very vocal about their ability to fire teachers “at-will.” They advertise this to parents of prospective students, as though the problem with education is that public school teachers are “impossible” to fire. In reality, any teacher who doesn’t do their job risks the possibility of being fired. The difference is that, when a public school wants to fire a teacher, they must first state what that teacher is doing wrong and give the teacher guidance on how to do things right. If the teacher is still unable or unwilling to meet the public school’s expectations, that teacher will be let go. At a charter school, that same teacher will be let go without any warning and replaced in the middle of the year by a substitute. In this scenario, it’s the students who suffer.
One conservative approach to education that I agree with in theory is the concept of “merit pay.” Merit pay is the idea that “better” teachers should be awarded higher salaries, thereby making schools “competitive,” as Mr. Trump wants to do. However, in order for merit pay to actually work, the bureaucrats that Mr. Trump wants to get rid of are going to have to stay. Every teacher deals with unique circumstances, and so it is unrealistic to have a universal standards for a teacher’s effectiveness. In order for merit pay to actually work, each individual teacher must be given standards that they and their students are required to meet, and these standards must be evaluated by an objective source. If a charter school is well-organized enough to do this on their own, they can and should, but most charter schools are notoriously disorganized, meaning that something as critical as teacher’s pay is decided arbitrarily by overworked administrators who are underpaid themselves.
At the end of my first year teaching at a charter school, I was reading Long Shot, the memoir of legendary MLB catcher Mike Piazza. The LA Dodgers drafted Piazza because he was a longtime family friend of then-manager Tommy Lasorda, and when he asked his team for more money in his contract extension, they laughed in his face and traded him to another team. No matter how many home runs Piazza hit for the Dodgers, they would always see him as the low-level draft pick they hired as a nepotistic favor to the manager. Still, thanks to perseverance and great negotiation skills, Piazza eventually found a team willing to pay him his true value.
Charter school teachers aren’t professional athletes, but as a charter school teacher, I had to negotiate my contract like one. There was no union making the case for why I deserved a better pay, so I had to make that case for myself. This, to me, is exactly what’s wrong with Mr. Trump’s vision for education. We aren’t all expert negotiators like you, Mr. Trump, and when we start viewing teachers’ contracts as “deals” wherein there have to be “winners” and “losers,” the people who lose in the end are our kids.
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