Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Charters Bring Us a Limited Answer

By Daniel A. Domenech, Executive Director, AASA, The School Superintendents Association

AASA supports charter schools when they are operated by the local school board and managed by the local superintendent. Under certain circumstances, a district-operated charter school could offer students the quality education they perhaps are not receiving under existing conditions.

In 1995, I was the district superintendent for the Western Suffolk Supervisory district on Long Island, NY, a role quite different from that of the local superintendent. The district superintendent reports directly to the state commissioner of education and, in essence, is the commissioner’s regional representative. When the district superintendent for the adjoining Nassau County retired, I was asked by then-New York State Commissioner Thomas Sobol to assume the role of acting district superintendent for Nassau County as well. It was while serving in that capacity that the commissioner directed me to inspect the Roosevelt Union Free School District.

Apparently, a member of New York’s Board of Regents, the state’s board of education, had visited Roosevelt to look into complaints she was receiving and was appalled by what she discovered. I assembled a six-person team of educators from the area and conducted several visits. What we saw was indeed appalling and led me to report to the commissioner that “If a community could be charged with child neglect, possibly with abuse, Roosevelt would be a strong candidate.”

During a visit to the high school, I saw emergency windows bolted shut, live electrical wiring protruding from the ceiling, fire crackers being set off in the hallways, students wandering the premises rather than being in class and an environment not conducive to learning. Subsequent investigation revealed the building had multiple unresolved fire code and building violations. The principal at the high school was the fourth within a year.

Outside Management

At that time, the Roosevelt system was clearly broken and in need of major repair. Students were not receiving the quality education they were entitled to. My report created an outrage that led the state legislature to pass a bill authorizing the state’s takeover of the district. Under the heading of no good deed goes unpunished, I was directed by the state commissioner to head up the district’s takeover.

We moved quickly to make repairs to the facilities, restore order in the schools and focus on academic achievement. The legislation allowed me to bring charges against the local board before the Board of Regents and ask for their removal. In a trial-like atmosphere, we persevered and the Regents ruled against the local board and members were removed from office. A new board was elected the following year.

During that period, I was approached by Chris Whittle, founder of Channel One News, a television program viewed by eight million students in 12,000 schools across the country. Whittle sold Channel One in 1994, having earlier launched the Edison Schools along with Benno Schmidt, a former president of Yale University. Whittle wanted to establish a reputation for Edison, an early pioneer in school management and charters.

I was attempting to turn around the Roosevelt schools, but the lack of resources to upgrade facilities and implement quality instruction was proving elusive. Whittle made an offer I could hardly refuse. Edison was willing to assume management of the schools, renovate all facilities and provide every student with a computer. There was no way I could secure the resources Whittle was willing to provide within the district’s budget.

I immediately brought the offer to the commissioner and the Board of Regents. Unfortunately, that was 1995. New York State was not yet ready to turn over management of its public schools to a private firm nor was the state looking positively at charters. Today it might have been an entirely different matter.

A Limited Solution

As was the case almost 20 years ago, partnerships with the private sector can result in students getting a better education than the current environment in certain situations. We have examples of charter schools providing their students with an education they would not otherwise have because they can bring resources to the table that the school district cannot provide.

However, this does not mean a charter school is the solution for everything wrong with education. Wide support of choice and charters today are bringing us back to segregated schools, a predicament we thought resolved in America. It’s a decision that should be left to the locality and not pressed upon them by federal or state regulations.

Views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

Reprinted with permission from the June 2014 issue of School Administrator magazine, published by AASA, The School Superintendents Association.


Image modifed from original by Victoriaedwards (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons