Arne Duncan was the best friend the charter industry ever had in the federal government. He praised them again and again, and he periodically announced that he had found a charter school that had closed the gaps and done what no public school could do. He lavished hundreds of millions of dollars on them. I can’t recall him ever praising any public school the way he praised privately managed charters. Apparently, he hasn’t changed his mind. In this article that appeared in The Atlantic, Duncan is back to his old stand, singing the virtues of charters.
But once again, as I have in the past, I have to save Albert Shanker from the bold assertion that he was the visionary who created the charter movement. It is true that Shanker was one of the first to describe a new kind of school that he called a charter school (the other was Raymond Budde at the University of Massachusetts). In 1988, he sang the praises of this experiment. He saw it as a school within a school, made up of union teachers, that would be free to try new methods to teach the disaffected, the kids that regular public schools were not doing well with. He thought these schools would seek out the toughest kids. He said that the charter would have to get the permission of the local teachers’ union before starting. It would be an autonomous teacher-run school with a five-year grant of authority. He saw it as an R&D lab that helped public schools try out and learn new ways to educate.
What people like Duncan and others who invoke Shanker’s name will never tell you is that Shanker turned against his creation only five years later, in 1993. He concluded that charters had been taken over by corporate interests and that his idea had become a vehicle for privatization of public schools. He denounced them as vociferously as he denounced vouchers.
See pp. 123-124 of my book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.” (The page numbers might be different in the new edition. Just read Chapter 7.)