A while ago I hinted at the tension between charter schools in DC* and Michelle Rhee over the teacher pay raises in the new contract. That’s now becoming a bigger issue.
When Michael Bennet, now Senator Bennet (D-CO), was superintendent of schools in Denver I remember all the grumbling about his indifference to charter schools within the ed reform scene there. It wasn’t that he was hostile to them at all, he was quite supportive. Rather, if he had a large dollop of money to invest in reform it was usually for something systemic to help the city’s schools. Michael’s view was that while $3 million could help open a great charter, it could also help develop a training program, recruitment strategy, etc… that would help the beleaguered district improve. In other words, while he was a reformer’s reformer, he knew he wasn’t superintendent of the charters, he was superintendent of the public school system there. Although not in Bennet’s case, too often that ethic turns into hostility to charters, and that’s a huge problem. But in the context of intensive urban education reform benign neglect for charters isn’t unreasonable and may be the best strategy to help both sectors and ultimately build urban systems that work for all students.
And that brings us to Michelle Rhee in D.C. Like Bennet she’s a reformer’s reformer. And like him she’s pro-charter. She’s pro-choice in general in fact. But she’s the Chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, not just the Chancellor of the Charters. Her job is to fix the demonstrably awful schools in D.C. not just to help charters grow. To the extent there are inequities in the city’s funding formulas that don’t put charters on a level playing field with other public schools, those should be remedied (although D.C. is much better on that score than some other jurisdictions). But, the charters have enjoyed the pick of teachers in the city for a long time now because they offer better working conditions, better opportunities, etc…Now the city is, yes, competing under Rhee’s leadership. And competition is part of what this is supposed to be all about in terms of a theory of change. Fortunately, the charters can continue to compete in a bunch of non-monetary ways but the idea that this new contract is an untenable problem because it will complicate the human capital situation for the city’s charters doesn’t hold water.
Put a different way that will resonate with some people, sometimes Creon is operating in a larger context, longer time lines, and under different constraints than are immediately apparent in the specifics and passions of the moment.
The one aspect of this I do worry about is the issue of leveraging reform, assuming the contract ultimately goes through. Teachers in D.C. did not see raises for several years but are not underpaid the way teachers in some jurisdictions are. The point of this new money is to leverage a new, and better, approach to human capital in the city. In other words, if Rhee isn’t able to really exploit the new contract to change things in DC, it’ll be an enormous missed opportunity because the new money’s real value is in what it can bring about by way of change.
Update: Smarick has a smart response to this up. Let me be clear, I’m all for using charters as a reform strategy. My point is just that as contemporary education reform becomes more integrated with education policy overall reformers should be ready for the kind of hard choices that come with running large systems. So to Andy’s example of a district working with a CMO, sure. But you can argue that some sometimes big system-wide fixes, even if not ideal for charters, are the best way to serve more kids better as quickly as possible. E.g. the new contract in D.C.
*I was a charter trustee in the city for seven years.