The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "Charter Schools Put Reins in Teachers' Hands" by The Detroit News, 7/13/97.

Original Title:
Teachers and Charters: What's Not To Like?
by Barry McGhan

A recent Detroit News article lamented the difficulties that Michigan charter schools face. Some public school teachers may be secretly glad of this news. Instead, they ought to think about bailing out the charter school movement. Really. I'm not kidding.

Charter schools offer teachers what no other public school can--complete control of their work situation--if they do the chartering. Teachers with a beef about the rules in their district would have a new option. In a charter school the charterers determine the operational rules, and nonsensical ones could be pitched. Also, there would be no more need to close their doors on the latest fad the higher-ups have dragged into the district.

Do teachers have an incompetent supervisor? In a charter they can hire their own administrator and set up a fair system for judging competence. Are teachers tired of taking up the slack for the ditz-meister down the hall? They can develop their own hiring and teacher evaluation procedures, free from both administrative and union interference.

What about those out-of-control kids and their uncooperative parents? As State Senator Dick Posthumus and Representative Ken Sikkema said in a recent News editorial, "... not one child is compelled to attend a public school academy." And, if kids aren't compelled to attend, then the academy is not compelled to keep those that enroll, either. Charter schools are prohibited from excluding students from enrolling, but they don't have to keep kids who are disruptive.

Teachers who charter public school academies will not only have control of rules, personnel matters, and the clientele, they'll also have control of the purse strings. That means salaries, for themselves and for non-classroom personnel too, as well as funds for textbooks, materials, technology and everything else on which a school spends money.

For example, a school of 300 students will (at about $6000 per student) bring in $1.8 million per year. A class size of 20 requires a staff of 15 teachers. If the average salary and fringe benefits add up to $60,000 per teacher that's $900,000, leaving another $900,000 for everything else. (By the way, retirement benefits would continue to be available through the retirement system of the chartering institution.) Throw in a principal for another 60 or 70 grand, a couple of secretaries at $25,000 each, a maintenance service, contracted inservice training as needed, and so on. Fool around with the numbers for yourself, but it sounds feasible to me.

However, as the saying goes, "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch." What's the down side of the charter business for teachers?

Recent research identifies several problem areas. Financial concerns, especially related to securing and maintaining a facility, are high on the list. Local school boards could help out here if they were more willing to create charters themselves--at least for their own teachers.

Another concern has to do with the extra time and effort required to get a new program going and keep it running. Some non-teaching duties and responsibilities can be hired out (for example, an accountant for budgeting and purchasing), but others will have to be handled by teachers who are also busy teaching. "Burn-out" will be a real threat during the first few years of operation. Teachers would need to develop a strong support system among themselves in order to carry it off.

Another constraint has to do with the controversial nature of charter schools. There are some rules (e.g., state testing) that charter schools have to live by, and people will be watching closely. This adds pressure to an already pressurized situation. Here again, developing a strong support system is the likely defense against this "fishbowl" situation.

Currently, the Republicans in the state Senate and the Democrats in the House are at an impasse on the future of charters. If House control slips back into Republican hands next year, charters can be expected to move forward again. Those public school teachers who like the idea of being more in control of their own destiny might want to think about contacting their legislators now, rather than waiting for the next election to call the shots.

Parents, too, might want to encourage legislation that makes it more attractive to local school boards to turn some of their schools into charters under the control of their own teachers. At the very least, this would prevent some public funds from going to former private schools that become charters. It would provide a measure of local control through an elected school board. It would also move charter school development along, since local boards are not restricted in the number of charters they can create.

Given the recently weakened collective bargaining position of Michigan teachers, going into business for themselves may be an option that needs further consideration. Something for them to think about during summer vacation, eh?


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