The old, OLD man with the long white beard looked like he had arrived from another century. Was it Walt Whitman? Maybe Karl Marx? No, I knew by the finch merrily perched on his left shoulder. It was Charles Darwin. The bicentennial of his birth was nearly over.
Hello Mr. Darwin. Great to see you. Have a seat. Still celebrating number 200?
CD: Yes. But I’ve been looking around.
Observing again? Another visit to the Galapagos?
CD: No. I’ve grown fascinated by another landscape. Your cities, and their public schools.
Signs of evolution?
CD: Traces. Nothing’s immutable. I made that point 150 years ago.
Even school districts?
CD: I see change. More diversity. A new species —these charter schools—nothing quite like them when I was back for my 175th.
A new strain. Enough folks thought they could create their own schools largely free from the district. As cities and their school districts grew, local control started to mean control for 30,000 students – then 60,000 – then 100,000. Soon “local control” lost its meaning.
CD: The districts are like iguanas.
CD: On Galapagos. Without competition, they just got bigger. They took over.
I see. So charter folks said let’s get real about local control. Each of these schools has its own mission, its own governing board, its own budget.
CD: Sounds like the Shrewsbury School, my boyhood school.
Charters borrow a lot from independent schools. But they’re public.
CD: Well, then, hardly a new strain. Perhaps common ancestors. Certainly a profitable variation for public education. These schools are often smaller aren’t they?
Yes. One of the more obvious adaptations. A more personal community.
CD: And yet I also see most of the big old high schools are still here, some with over 500 freshmen.
Yes, and most of those 500 aren’t graduating four years later. Which is why some call them “dropout factories.” Still far too many of them.
CD: So these schools are becoming extinct?
You’d like to think so. But no, they keep feeding these dinosaurs and they lumber along….
CD: You’d be amazed at how long downward mutations can survive. It can take millions of years.
Don’t depress me. Anyway, the new schools are more efficient too because they control their operations. Not subject to the latest mandate from the district office. Not bound by a union contract. More freedom to hire and fire. A former superintendent wrote recently about a school district spending 27 months and $87,360 to fire one unsatisfactory teacher. None of that nonsense. They can create afterschool and Saturday morning programs without waiting for the local union to vote whether it would tolerate such a “drastic” change.
CD: Charters have the money to offer such programs?
That’s part of the deal. They get the money. The money doesn’t go through the district.
CD: Go through? I don’t follow.
Here the district and state money might come to $7,200 to pay for a student’s education. The charters can get nearly all of that. In our big districts principals don’t control the money, districts do. Recently one of our big districts spoke of distributing only $3,400 out of that $7,200 to its schools next year.
CD: Less than 50%? So the rest pays for what?
Transportation. Utilities. Insurance. Hard to know, to be honest. A director of this and that. And their assistants. The central office.
CD: A creature designed to snare most of the money before it reaches the school? Sounds like a spider’s web. The struggle for existence is hard enough. No wonder the anger at district control. No wonder the new – old – strain appeared.
Anger, yes. Lots of charter folks aren’t patient … not willing to jump through hoops, to ask permission from the state, the district, the union… they don’t feel you should have to ask—
CD: To ask if they can use their wings.
CD: Sounds like a bird that’s nearly lost its ability to fly. Now eager to take off. I’ve traveled the country for my 200th and have observed a good number of charters serving kids especially well. They’ve taken flight. Even places where the landscape seems hostile to this new species, the numbers keep growing. Some are flourishing.
Would you call this survival of the fittest?
CD: (Smiling) I saw a survey of a city where by a 3-1 ratio parents thought charters were better than the district’s other schools.
For more and more parents it seems a natural selection.
CD: (Chuckling) Well, it is encouraging. (Mr. Darwin got up to leave. His finch chirped.)
Yes, but tragic that so many still don’t believe.
CD: In what?
Evolution, of course! They still think the current structure has always been here, as if God Himself had created school boards and money filtering through the central office and big schools … they believe these are permanent fixtures on the landscape.
CD: Hardly an intelligent design. Got a name for these folks?
Actually we do. We call them … creationists.
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