05/04/2011 02:20 pm ET | Updated Jul 04, 2011

The Uncomfortable Truth About Charter Schools

The proliferation of charter schools has become one of the most divisive issues in public education. Proponents tout the successes of some and generalize it to all. They promote charters as desperately needed alternative to neighborhood schools they call "drop-out factories." Opponents characterize charter schools as anti-union agenda-driven corporate saboteurs of public education and labor unions. They deny any qualitative difference between charters and non-charter public schools -- and, in fact, refer to statistical comparisons that show charter schools less successful than other public schools (ironically using the same numbers many of us dismiss as invalid instruments by which to measure teacher success or pay).

The uncomfortable truth for both sides of this argument is that they are partly right but just as wrong.

The reality, on the ground -- the only place that matters for students, parents, or teachers -- is that some neighborhood schools are not safe and the overall quality of instruction is shameful. I have been inside some of these schools and have known students who have either left or altogether avoided them because of the experiences of friends and family. In some communities charter schools are among the alternatives to which students and parents look for relief -- but there are also other alternatives, including magnet schools, alternative public schools, and better neighborhood schools usually in better neighborhoods (sometimes requiring a school bus ride an hour or longer).

There are other truths on the ground worth noting. Every teacher in every problematic neighborhood school is not a problem. In fact, some of the worst schools sometimes have some of the best teachers -- just not enough of them and the obstacles to quality instruction can be formidable. They include an anti-academic culture among students and even some faculty, a lack of experienced or consistent leadership, and overwhelming numbers of students in crisis.

And not all of those charter school alternatives are offering quality instruction. Most are small and that alone should make them better. It generally makes them safer and gives teachers more opportunities to interact with students and reach them in meaningful ways -- in and outside the classroom. Small non-charter public schools have the same advantage but do not have the autonomy charter schools have in deciding how to allocate resources.

Which is why every charter school, untangled from district rules and red-tape, ought to be better - but the sad truth is that at least some of these charter schools are squandering their advantage.

I teach at a successful -- though far from perfect -- non-charter public alternative school (a 9 on the Great Schools website, the only one in our zip code that includes several charter schools) and just as many of my students come to us to get away from charter schools as to escape neighborhood schools and about as many come ill-prepared from each.

Those who come well-prepared tend to come from certain schools. Some are charter. Some are not. One thing those students have in common is that they can all tell you about at least a few really good teachers they've had.

That is no surprise. Even the most vehement teacher-bashers -- most of them anyway -- concede that really good teachers are the most important component in a quality education.

What we cannot agree on is how to make every teacher a really good teacher.

Proponents of charter schools say that job security makes us complacent, lazy, intractable. It gives us what people call "the civil servant mentality." We can all find examples of such teacher -- but a lot of us actually care about the students we work with every day and if you care about your students then why wouldn't you work hard until your last day? (And, by the way, I don't mean to suggest that some postal workers aren't passionate about the letters they carry or that some sanitation engineers aren't... you know...)

Opponents of charter schools, on the other hand, say that job-insecurity compromises academic freedom and integrity and that charter schools in general discourage teachers from staying long enough to reach their maximum effectiveness.

But not all charter schools are non-union. In fact, teachers in the largest charter school organization in my city (Los Angeles) are union members. Many charter schools offer pay comparable to LAUSD. A former student of mine is now a teacher at one such charter. He believes that he is respected by his administration, given favorable working conditions and well-compensated for his work.

But not all charter school teachers are. In my capacity as an athletic director I have gotten to know charter school coaches and teachers, some of whom are treated fairly and others who are outright exploited -- and who usually do not last more than a year. A few weeks ago I spoke to a substitute teacher filling in for one of my colleagues. She described for me the disorganized and malfunctioning charter school at which she currently teaches. The school, she said, was delivering very little instruction to its students and was two months behind in paying her. They give her a day off once a month so that she can sub in LAUSD in order to maintain her LAUSD health coverage because they have failed to make good on their promise of employee benefits.

Of course, it isn't as if I couldn't tell you horror stories of teacher exploitation and mistreatment in LAUSD or any other big city school district.

My suggestion is that proponents of charter schools turn their attention to making those charter schools live up to their promise. Meanwhile, if opponents of charter schools can be part of the solution in our non-charter public schools, they might not feel as threatened by those charter schools.