POSTED: February 28th, 2012
This morning, while sitting at the opening session of California Charter Schools Association‘s annual conference, I was reflecting on charter schools, edu-business and traditional public schools. The more and more I thought about it and became more and more frustrated, I kept coming back to the same question; “why can’t it just all work together?”
Well, it can. But for that to happen, there needs to be some mutual respect. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen until each side of the issue takes a look in the mirror and undergoes some self-reflection and admits that each has what the other needs. I’m not sure it is ever really going to happen, but if it does, it needs to happen soon for the good of our children.
In the traditional public system, we have done a great job of creating systems that are good for the masses. We are also good at doing well with very little discretionary revenue and dealing with a multitude of variable outside the classroom like transportation, buildings and food service. However, traditional public systems are required to educate everyone. Severally handicapped children, children with a multitude of emotional issues and children who come to school sporadically and are not ready to learn when they do attend. The additional money given to a district to educate these children is around 40% of the actual cost. The remainder comes from money allocated to educate everyone else.
Traditional public schools also need to deal with unions and rules that protect weak employees, pay older employees double for the same amount of work and make the process of dismissal costly and/or impractical. This includes teachers, as well as, custodians, cafeteria workers, instructional aides and to a lesser extent bus drivers.
Finally traditional schools are required to follow an arcane set of rules that often contradict one another. These rules are interpreted by a constantly shifting and thick set of bureaucratic decisions that are often based on preferences, whims or political pressure by individuals who were not successful working at traditional schools.
As for charter schools, there are two camps. In one camp you have a nice group of people who wanted to educate children free from many of the rules the govern schools. They make less money than teachers at traditional schools; they have no tenure and/or union. They also don’t have to worry about severely handicapped children or those that aren’t ready to learn, because they will be uninvited to attend (Remember, charter schools are a selective option.) They have heart and passion. However, they are, by and large, not good at setting up systems or thinking strategically about their business. They have good intentions, but often need to turn over business operations to people who know nothing about schools. These schools sputter and never seem to grow because, the advice they get isn’t good for them. It’s usually good for lawyers and accountants. (Looking at some of their books, it always amazes me how much they spend on these two items.)
The other camp is made up of smart business people who don’t really care about education. They are edu-businessmen. What they care about is getting students and creating revenue. They have no background in education. In some cases, the company they started was an MBA project at a top business school. But, what they do have that traditional school and smaller charter schools need is a head for business and an entrepreneurial spirit. They understand money, financial systems and know how to find investment.
In each case, one has what the other needs. Public schools need the flexibility and passion of the smaller charter schools, and the business acumen of the edu-business. Smaller charters need to understand systems better so that won’t have to spend money on things unrelated to their mission. Edu- business needs to get some of the heart of the smaller charters and the knowledge of the education industry that exists in the traditional system.
There has never been a more important time for each of these factions to come together. I just hope it happens soon because when we are not getting the best of each other, our students are not getting the best from us.
However, there is some hope. Click on EdHive and see how the dream of working together can be a reality.