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The Future of Peninsula Charter Schools

Charter School advocates and union leaders discuss the contentious issue of charter schools, and specifically how to evaluate teachers

As the school year fast approaches, many parents and their children are anxiously awaiting word on whether they were accepted off the waiting list to some of the Peninsula’s top charter schools.

Schools such as San Carlos Charter Learning Center, Summit Prep, North Star Academy and the East Palo Alto Charter School are known for low drop-out rates and boast far higher college acceptance numbers than their public school counterparts.

In the heavily debated 2010 film, “Waiting for Superman,” non-union charter schools are portrayed as the ultimate solution to the issues of poor teachers and underperforming schools.

Patch set out this week to talk to charter school advocates and union leaders about the pros and cons of charter schools, and how to develop them.

Todd Dickson, the former Executive Director of Summit Prep, one of the schools featured in “Waiting for Superman,” said charter schools have greater autonomy than most schools, giving them the flexibility to try innovative approaches.

Dickson, who is currently working to develop several new charter schools in Nashville, said one misconception about charter schools is they do not have to teach all students.

However, admission to charter schools are awarded via a lottery system.

Another benefit Dickson sees of charter schools is the fact that they have “great control over the hiring and firing of teachers.”

Though Dickson does not see himself as ‘anti-union,’ he expressed concern that many unionized public school teachers are judged solely on seniority when it comes to salary increases.

Salary increases, Dickson said, should come from improved performance.

“Public schools give salary increases even if there’s no evidence a teacher is improving,” said Dickson.

Teachers’ salaries at public schools in California can go up to $100,000 per year for senior teachers.

Dickson professed no objection to improving salary with experience, however, he stressed even the more experienced teachers should provide supporting evidence their experience has improved their teaching.

“As you’re a 15 or 17 year teacher making more, I would expect that you demonstrate your value and that the outcomes of your kids are so much better than those of younger teachers,” said Dickson.

Redwood City Teachers Union Head Brett Baird insisted that Teachers Unions have no objections to charter schools provided that they are staffed with unionized teachers.

“I’m all for parents doing right by their kids,” said Baird.

California Teachers Association Spokesperson Mike Myslinsky also expressed no specific objection to charter schools, but voiced skepticism about many of their practices.

In terms of teacher pay, Myslinsky said that teachers’ unions oppose performance based pay because performance is often based on students’ test scores.

“We oppose using standardized test scores when measuring ability,” said Myslinsky, who added that he believed seniority often corresponds with performance.

When it comes to the process by which teachers are held accountable for poor performance, Myslinsky stressed teachers unions are also concerned about poor quality teachers. The belief the ‘at-will’ employment contracts at non-unionized charter schools will fix that problem becomes problematic.

“Many teachers are dismissed at the whim of a charter school owner without just cause,” said Myslinsky.

But for some charter school principals such as East Palo Alto Charter School’s Sharon Johnson, unions are not needed because teachers’ points-of-view are listened to and often put into practice by the administration.

“Teachers have a voice directly here in decisions,” said Johnson, whose graduating classes have a 100% acceptance rate to colleges.

Johnson added that teacher pay at East Palo Alto Charter School is competitive with other schools in the region, and that the mostly young teaching staff is given ample opportunity to develop more teaching skills throughout their tenure.

For the California Teachers Association, however, teacher compensation is as much about preserving a middle class lifestyle as it is about rewarding performance.

“Teachers should be able to afford to live in the districts they teach in,” said Myslinsky. “There are many teachers in Palo Alto or San Mateo or Burlingame who cannot afford to live there.”

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Caroline Grannan August 04, 2012 at 06:56 PM
This is propaganda, not journalism: "Schools such as San Carlos Charter Learning Center, Summit Prep, North Star Academy and the East Palo Alto Charter School are known for low drop-out rates and boast far higher college acceptance numbers than their public school counterparts." 1. Without researching each school (that's the reporter's job, though), at least one of them is a K-8 school. How can a K-8 school have a college acceptance rate? 2. All claims of statistical comparisons to public schools coming from the charter sector need to be checked and confirmed, not parroted unquestioned. The charter sector propaganda mill is notorious for flimflamming the press with flat-out false information. Practice journalism rather than parroting propaganda. 3. It gets more complicated. Charter high schools are notorious for pushing out their less-successful students and not replacing them, and then claiming high college acceptance rates for the few who remain. It's not sound journalism to simply accept those claimed college acceptance rates without checking the attrition. Yes, that's hard work, and the billionaire-funded privatizers count on lazy journalism to promote their propaganda. But it's still your job to do the reporting.
Rick Eymer August 04, 2012 at 07:13 PM
Caroline, I have to take a little of the blame on this one. I inserted the San Carlos Charter Learning Center into his story to make it local to San Carlos. I apologize that this K-8 school was bunched in with the high schools Adam mentioned. Adam, an intern this summer, has shown himself to be a responsible journalist. If you feel this is propaganda, then please provide the information necessary to check it out. Much of journalism, just like politics, is dictated by how readers respond. Adam spoke to school officials and based his story on the information gathered. You seem to be making unsubstantiated accusations. You could very well be right, and if you give us a place to look, we'll use our magnifying glasses to search it out. Thank you for your comments. Rick
Caroline Grannan August 04, 2012 at 09:10 PM
OK, sorry to be so harsh. This is amid a landscape in which the charter sector is combative with and hostile to public schools, and touts itself (to win vast amounts of private funding) with baseless claims of superiority. Sometimes there are asterisks -- such as the famously high attrition/pushout rate at "miracle" charters -- and sometimes the boasts are just plain ... lies. Unfortunately, the press has been very susceptible to all this for years. I know it requires a fair amount of comprehension of the background and the landscape to know what questions to ask. An important point is that overall, charter schools perform no better -- and often worse -- than comparable public schools. Here's an article that provides background on the propaganda and the myth. This is a dissection of "Waiting for 'Superman' " by education historian Diane Ravitch, published in the NY Review of Books. Ravitch was an undersecretary of education in the Bush I admin and an architect of the current brand of education "reform." After she looked at the results of these privatization-based "reforms," she determined that they are not successful, and changed her mind. Since she already had a seat at the table from which most critics are excluded, she has become a leading voice of dissent. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/?pagination=false
Caroline Grannan August 04, 2012 at 09:16 PM
I apologize for coming down so hard on an unsuspecting intern. For a good view of where dissenters are coming from, here's an examination of what media critic Jay Rosen calls "pressthink." Notice that the theme of the commentary is that the Internet allows the marginalized voices in the "sphere of deviance" to speak up, which we see in this very post. Being an ordinary, respectable PTA mom, I've had to get used to being placed in the "sphere of deviance" as a dissenter against the education "reform" propaganda. http://archive.pressthink.org/2009/01/12/atomization.html Also, please note that your sister Patch is covering the divisiveness and hostility that a charter school controversy has ignited in Los Altos Hills.
Joan J. Strong August 04, 2012 at 09:39 PM
People need to educate themselves as to what is happening to us in Los Altos. We have the highest-ranked district in the state in terms of test scores, but a single charter school (Bullis Charter) is ripping our community apart. I am a Los Altos public school parent. I post under an alias for fear of persecution by the charter, which has befallen others in our community who have spoken out about this school. Less than a year ago I knew nothing at all about charter schools. When I found out that my children's school could be CLOSED by a charter school (ours is one of the top-ranked schools in the State--the opposite of "failing"), I educated myself on charters and became an online activist. Please read about it on my blog articles here: http://BullisCharterSchoolThoughts.blogspot.com/ Here's an information site for this school as well: http://bullisCharterScam.org/ The community has recently created a legal defense fund for our schools as well. We have no choice but to act in order to save or public schools. Again, this is all being done by plain old PARENTS, not "unions" or other charter advocate boogeymen. The outcry over this school has been unprecedented. It's what communities can expect from charter schools. Read up before you vote.
Marc Parent August 04, 2012 at 10:58 PM
The Charter schools have been a blessing for my children. Statistics aside, I found the Charter scool to be a wonderful community based school and my children thrive there. I am not sure why there is so much bitterness about a school that produces a quality result with the same tax dollars as union schools. John Stossel did an interesting report on the Teachers union in NYC schools, and recent events in our nations capital have created a bitterness from the union folks even though teachers make more when they are paid on perfomance rather than seniority. Should teachers that perform better get paid more? If you are in the non union world like most of us, the employees at companies that are non union who perform better get promoted and make more money, why are schools any different? Unions (the CTA for example), wield such large voting blocks of power, the Governor never opposes them, Arnold tried against the nurses union some time ago and lost. The prison guards, and all other unions vote and donate in blocks making them political powerhouses, problem is that teachers effect us all as we trust them with our childrens education. Why should we not have options?
Marc Parent August 04, 2012 at 11:09 PM
And Joan your Blog is the worst kind of Fear Mongering ever. You are the Turd, you can't even use your real name, you must use 8 track tapes and LP's because clearly time and technology has left you behind. Michael Moore and others cannot help you keep this out dated system. The Charter schools are an attractive option for many parents, there will still be traditional schools for parents who prefer them. Why do you not want to grant options for others who like and prefer the charter system? Back to Blackboards and lunch pails and continue to teach with your head in the sand. Look what is happening around you and accept change, my children need it, I pay the same taxes you do, why do you want to deny we parents and fellow taxpayers a choice? Perhaps you have a vested interest in the union rules that has clearly not worked for the past 50 years.
Joan J. Strong August 05, 2012 at 12:43 AM
Marc -- I'll ignore your (typical charter) insults and personal attacks and stick to the facts: 1. 18% (and growing) of charter schools across the USA are unionized. Your bogeyman is rapidly being nullified. Better find another one quick. 2. Charter school industry lobbies (as they are now a multi-billion dollar INDUSTRY) are now more powerful than teacher's unions in states where they are big. Here in CA they helped pass one of the first local tax increases in decades (Prop 39). It's called the Education-Industrial Complex--like the Military one before it. Their paying customers are lawmakers, not consumers. 3.Bullis Charter's teachers have more generous benefits than their district counterparts, and their salary structure is ultimately more generous. Charters don't save money, nor use it more efficiently. 4. Bullis Charter gets $5000/child from parents and spends over twice as much per typical student in our district. They have tons of money. They have virtually the same test scores even though they "cream" the richest kids. 5. LASD was one of the first Districts to adopt Khan Academy and many other innovations. More baseless smears. Our public schools innovate and produce excellent results and take ALL comers. It's great that you won the lottery and were able to separate your children from the "undesirables" in your local public schools. Like a Ponzi scheme, if everybody did it, your advantage would be canceled out. That should tell you something.
Adam Swart August 05, 2012 at 01:26 AM
Caroline-I appreciate your interest in the subject. I can't respond to the issue of how statistics are compiled among charter schools, however, I can respond to your issue with the idea of measuring college acceptance rates among K-8 schools. In the case of East Palo Alto Charter School, the school tracks the students after they leave, thus they can track how many students ultimately end up in college. The issue you mentioned about charter schools allegedly pushing out less successful students is something that may have happened at a couple of schools, but my understanding is none of the schools mentioned in this piece have been accused of such actions. I understand that the charter school issue is a contentious one, but I would ask you to be respectful with your disagreement , something I imagine is taught in both public and charter schools.
Caroline Grannan August 05, 2012 at 01:59 AM
Adam, have you looked at their claimed data? Because if not, taking their word isn't sufficiently rigorous journalism. At the very least, you need to carefully attribute these boasts rather than treating them as truths universally acknowledged. It's a well-known issue throughout the education policy world that many "miracle" charter schools (not just a couple) are known for their high attrition/pushouts -- students who leave and are not replaced. For example, SRI International did a study of the Bay Area KIPP schools that showed 60% of the students at those schools leave and are not replaced, and those are consistently the less successful students. When you're dealing with a hotly contested issue, it's appropriate to double-check when you can, clarify to your readers that this is a hotly contested issue, and attribute religiously. I also challenge the implication that charters routinely have waiting lists. Over and over in my community (San Francisco) we've regularly seen charters publicly boasting of "long waiting lists" while actually desperately trying to fill their seats. I suggest an undercover phone call to ask if the charter has openings for your child before accepting any "long waiting list" claims. Sorry again for the slapdown, but this is an area where journalism is often substandard. Reporters' skepticism sometimes vanishes inexplicably in the face of boasts from the charter sector, despite a history of debunked lies from charter spokespeople.
Caroline Grannan August 05, 2012 at 02:03 AM
... You can see from the discussion between @Joan and @Marc that this is a hotly debated issue that's igniting hostility and divisiveness. I apologize again for reacting so strongly, but I've been seeing the same false boasts from the charter sector for the 10+ years I've been following education policy closely. The way to head off criticism is to ask the questions, raise the challenges and scrupulously attribute all self-aggrandizing claims, from the beginning, in all your coverage.
Joan J. Strong August 05, 2012 at 03:37 AM
Adam, Here is my article on "creaming", which is how charter schools *inevitably* weed out the most difficult-to-teach students and isolate the easy ones: http://bullischarterschoolthoughts.blogspot.com/2012/03/public-education-dictionary-creaming.html In short, there has never, ever been a study nor even a single anecdotal example cited where a charter school has been given the same inputs and produced better outputs. Never. Every single charter we know about achieves success by SELECTION. In other words, they select the most fortunate kids (more fortunate than those around them) and are able to return difficult cases back to public schools. Note that I'm not just talking about "rich" parents here. We've all seen the stories of "super mom" who lives in the rough part of town yet somehow has time to get her kids to do their homework every night and stood in line on her one day off to get her kids into a charter school lottery. But that's a Hollywood fantasy: it's one in a hundred moms living in low-income situations. The rest are working two or more jobs, have problems with drugs or alcohol, maybe other problems with the law, have had little education and have little awareness of it's need. They barely have enough energy to get their kids to the bus stop of whatever public school is near them. This is the REAL "achievement gap". Charters don't bridge the achievement gap, they simple make it easier to navigate for the most fortunate--and thus widen it.
Glen August 05, 2012 at 03:47 AM
As someone not connected to this direct issue the connection all of you have is about your passion for your children's education. If that were more common and parents were always the best advocates supporters of their children's education our system would be working fine. Too often the problems are attributed to unions and other factors, which can play a role, but schools, teachers, and parents need to be partners to have any success.
Rick Eymer August 05, 2012 at 04:49 AM
Caroline, I haven't quite finished the article to which you linked, but I can see it is thought provoking (I let my subscription lapse, my loss!) and Diane Ravitch effectively offers a counter balance to the documentary "Waiting for 'Superman,' " which I have not seen. Glen (in a comment below) makes a good point that there is the common ground of being passionate about your child's education, which just may be a root cause of a bitter debate (I am speaking generally, not just this board) between charter and public. Ravitch points out in her article that the original idea behind the charter was to operate a school-within-a-school. In most cases educators and teachers were working together. What has occurred is a rift developed because it become an image program. Charters and public schools are not enemies and should not be compared to each other in any way, shape or form. It's apples and oranges. Yes the affluent can privatize education, but it doesn't work the same for every student. On the other hand, while poverty levels generally equate to fewer choices, there are students who manage to navigate the public education system and go on to some of the best universities in the nation. If we were truly able to take money and ego out of the discussion, what would it look like? Articles like the one to which Caroline linked are beneficial and instructive. Perhaps instead of Battlin' Banjos we can synchronize the symphony.
Rick Eymer August 05, 2012 at 06:53 AM
Links to stories from Los Altos Patch: http://losaltos.patch.com/articles/lasd-says-bullis-skims-affluent-students http://losaltos.patch.com/articles/a-parent-group-seeks-status http://losaltos.patch.com/topics/proposition+39
Marc Parent August 05, 2012 at 04:22 PM
Joan, 1.You are the one attacking. How many public schools are unionized? Care to wager its more that 18%? 2. Would you again care to wager which lobby is larger The CTA or Charter schools? This statement makes no sense at all, how are the politicians voting in tax increases, don't the voters do that, (LOL)? 3. Charters put more money in the pockets of good qualified teachers, and it seems you have a problem with that, why is that Joan? 4. Parents have the right to donate in all communities. In fact my school district takes children in from out of district (Tinsley) so that the less fortunate get the benefits of my communities (API) donations so I fail to see why this is a problem unless you are a socialist, which sounds like it may be a possibility. Perhaps you believe that the government would take better care of the money, like the the State Parks debacle of recent weeks. Why would you deny parents of such a choice? In this counry we all have a voice, and its called into action at the ballot box, if the people speak, government should listen. Charter schools are a wonderful alternative to a system that is clearly failing by all recognized standards, but I guess you like to eliminate these choices into a "one size fits all" system that is not working for all. Please state all facts wen making such a one sided baseless comments, We informed parents know better than you about the benefits of Charter schools. I guess you like living on the mean streets of Los Altos.
Caroline Grannan August 05, 2012 at 05:43 PM
Rick, even fairly moderate voices observe that charters were a benign idea originally, envisioned as partnering with public schools, but that the concept was rapidly hijacked by forces that are hostile to public education (yes, there are powerful forces pushing for eliminating public education entirely and shift to a fully privatized system), and definitely by forces that want to crush teachers' unions. The organization Rethinking Schools has some thoughtful commentary on that. The charter sector has made itself into an aggressive attacker of public education, so it's late in the game to ask if we can't all just get along. Part of the impetus is this: Charter schools have sought and been wildly successful in winning undreamed-of amounts in private funding from wealthy "eduphilanthropists" -- sources such as the Gates Foundation, the Walton (Wal-Mart) Family Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Fisher (Gap) Family Foundation and many more. A big part of the way to keep the money flowing is with the boasts about their superiority -- the misinformation or oversimplified and misleading information that charter sources gave Adam that showed up in the 2nd graf of this report, which prompted my initial objections. Every "charters are superior" boast constitutes an attack on public schools, though there are more aggressive attacks as well. The reality is that charters overall are less successful than comparable public schools. ...
Caroline Grannan August 05, 2012 at 05:54 PM
Switching to my media critic hat (I'm a newsroom veteran): I know the media criticism to which I posted a link is arcane, but it explains the attitude that often pervades press coverage of the charter sector. Here's a quote: "The sphere of consensus is the “motherhood and apple pie” of politics, the things on which everyone is thought to agree. Propositions that are seen as uncontroversial to the point of boring, true to the point of self-evident, or so widely-held that they’re almost universal lie within this sphere. Here ... journalists do not feel compelled either to present opposing views or to remain disinterested observers. (Which means that anyone whose basic views lie outside the sphere of consensus will experience the press not just as biased but savagely so.)" That's all a quote from media critic and NYU prof Jay Rosen. As we clearly see, it's widely assumed that charter schools are within the sphere of consensus -- on which “journalists do not feel compelled either to present opposing views or to remain disinterested observers.” Rosen here describes me, and fellow commenter Joan, and many other public-school defenders against the charter propaganda blizzard: "... anyone whose basic views lie outside the sphere of consensus will experience the press not just as biased but savagely so." Needless to say, I think that more self-awareness among the press might lead to appropriately skeptical coverage.
Joan J. Strong August 05, 2012 at 08:15 PM
Marc, your entire argument goes like this: 1. Unions are bad. 2. Charter schools eliminate unions. 3. Therefore charters are good. #2 in your argument is false. * Yes, charter lobbies are out-spending the TA's in many local elections across the country. Bill Gates and Walmart have poured millions into Washington State's charter initiative. It's big business and big money. The TA's are amateurs: here come the big-business pros with BIG money for lobbies. * I don't have a problem with good teachers getting paid more. Never said I did. Many charter supporters hold up charters as a way of saving money. This is false. * Our average donation in our admittedly high-end area is $500 per child. The charter gets $5000 per child. Slight difference. * Socialist? You understand you are advocating government dollars behind handed to private companies, right? That's not exactly capitalism. * I don't deny parents anything. They are free to attend whatever private school they wish to pay for with their own money. * There is a limited amount of public dollars available. Taking them all for yourself means other kids need to go without. * Failing? Our district is the top-rated in California. Studies have shown that Charters absolutely, positively have NOT improved test scores or outcomes. * Yes, you sure know a lot. That's why you use that "union" scarecrow so mindlessly. * Sadly, our streets are in fact a but meaner now--because of the charter school.

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