How much freedom do charter schools deserve?

Today's topic: The Times recently reported on charter schools in Oakland that openly mock liberal orthodoxy and practice harsh disciplinary procedures. Are charter schools afforded too much latitude in teaching ideology to their students? How much leeway should they have?

Oakland owes a lot to its charter schools
Point: Lisa Snell

Schools with extreme ideology have not been a major issue in the charter school movement. Most parents choose charters because they are safer, have stronger academics and maintain more discipline and control over students. Even at the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, the ideological beliefs (not buying into progressive teaching pedagogy) are directed at the teaching staff, not the students. In fact, what critics seem to object to at American Indian is the explicit lack of ideological moments for students and the rigid focus on core academics. As controversial charter leader Ben Chavis explained about his schools' high scores, "These poor kids are doing well because we practice math and language arts. That's it. It's simple."

Charter schools are based on a premise of school choice, and parents are not compelled to enroll. If the discipline and ideology are too much, parents have other choices available. In fact, charter schools have led to systematic district reforms that have increased the number of high-quality choices for families. Oakland is a case in point.

In Oakland, charter schools accounted for 16.8% of the district's public school enrollment in 2008; there, charter schools are outperforming their district peers at all grade levels. Low-income students, English-language learners and ethnic minority students are sharing in this success. This competition from charter schools has led Oakland to embrace district-wide reforms, including funding schools more like charters and giving principals control of school resources through student-based budgeting. Oakland has also embraced an open-enrollment school assignment policy that allows parents to choose any campus in the district.

Even as the Oakland Unified School District is forced to make significant budget cuts because of declining enrollment and California's budget crisis, the district is acting more like a charter school organization. The majority of the district's budget reductions have been made at the central office, and 87% of the district's unrestricted budget will go to schools in the 2009-2010 school year.

Oakland Unified has been California's most improved large urban district, adding 73 points to its Academic Performance Index (California's benchmark for student achievement) over the last four years. In addition, Oakland has seen improvements over a wide variety of indicators: more AP classes, lower dropout rates, more students passing high school exit exams and more rich activities such as debate and chess teams. While Oakland has five of the top-performing charter schools in California, it also saw 21 traditional district schools make double-digit percentage point gains in reading and math scores in 2008.

This story is not unique to Oakland. Charter schools are a stalking horse for real school district reform. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reports that in 2008, 12 communities across the country had at least 20% of their public school students enrolled in charter schools, and 64 communities in the U.S. now have at least 10% of their public school students in charter schools. According to the Reason Foundation’s Weighted Student Formula Yearbook 2009, 15 districts have moved to student-based budgeting and open-enrollment school choice policies. In places like Baltimore, Denverand New York City, competition from a large number of charter schools has led districts to begin offering their schools and families some of the same freedom as charter schools enjoy.

Perhaps the new superintendent of Oakland Unified, Tony Smith, summed it up best at a town hall meeting last month by saying he was "a pretty big fan of the charter movement." But he also said non-charter schools should have the opportunity to enjoy some of the same freedoms as charters: "If you don't trust people in schools, then you're going to centrally manage, you're going to say, 'I know better than you.' "

California's 700-plus charter schools serve more than 250,000 students; nationwide, about 4,700 charter schools serve more than 1.5 million children. These schools have not been primarily ideological, nor have they compelled parents to enroll their children. They have become so popular because they offer parents high-quality options and the right to exit lower performing district-run schools.

Lisa Snell is the director of education and child welfare at the Reason Foundation.

Nothing justifies brainwashing students
Counterpoint: Ralph E. Shaffer

Lisa, your comments on the alleged beneficial impact of charters on the rest of Oakland's public schools don't justify the brainwashing that goes on at Ben Chavis' American Indian Charter schools. Furthermore, while you dismiss this as an exception, American Indian is not the only charter in which such indoctrination takes place.

Each morning, students at the Hugo Chavez People's Leadership Academy in East Los Angeles begin their school day by reciting a pledge of allegiance, but not the one you're thinking of. These kids pledge "to become productive members of a collectivist, socialist society." Classroom walls and hallways are adorned with posters promoting class struggle, equal rights for all and universal healthcare.

I'm kidding, Lisa. This school doesn't exist ... yet. But after reading The Times' riveting account of how American Indian requires students to recite a morning pledge to capitalism -- they apparently don't salute the flag -- it occurred to me that it won't be long before other zealots follow suit. What's keeping Citgo and Venezuelan oil money from pouring into California to take advantage of a naive educational community that funds, at taxpayer expense, ideological charter schools?

We already have several such campuses in Los Angeles. When Green Dot founder Steve Barr presented a proposed charter for converting Locke High to a charter, the description of what would be taught in the social sciences contained a clause that would have made free-market advocate Chavis very happy.

Locke's charter requires that every student demonstrate a belief in capitalism. To require public school students to believe in any economic system is unconstitutional. If nothing else, it violates the free speech provisions of the 1st Amendment. Conservatives don't want their tax dollars financing the promotion of socialism. Liberals have an equal right to protest public money paying for a school that recruits teachers only from the right. Chavis' recruitment announcement includes a statement that he is looking for teachers who "believe in free-market capitalism. ... Multi-cultural specialists, ultra liberal zealots and college-tainted oppression liberators need not apply." For other gems from Chavis, click here to visit American Indian's website.

If American Indian and Locke can get away with using taxpayer dollars to promote an economic ideology, why can't the John Birch Society and the Socialist Party do likewise?

Right-wing pundits are quick to denounce brainwashing in social science classrooms they've never been in. One can only wonder, in light of the Locke charter and American Indian's school pledge, how the social and economic reforms of Franklin Roosevelt are taught in those schools.

Have you forgotten, Lisa, that years ago Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, in a dissenting opinion, noted that the economic theories of the right were not written into the Constitution? If students at American Indian are required to recite a pro-capitalist credo each morning, and kids at Locke must demonstrate a belief in capitalism, then Brandeis was wrong. Adam Smith has found a place in the Constitution.

Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona.