What Teachers Should be Talking About

May 17, 2011

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On May 15, a couple dozen charter school teachers from Los Angeles participated in a Teacher Town Hall meeting broadcast live on NBC. The panelists included Meridith Dadigan, CCSA's Charter Teacher of the Year, who teaches at Aspire Titan, as well as William Heuisler, who teaches at a Green Dot school. The conversation touched on issues including state budget cuts, lay-offs, tenure policies, and testing, ultimately turning to a debate on the validity, necessity, and justification for charter schools.

Radhika Khandelwal, a teacher at Synergy Kinetic Academy in south Los Angeles who attended the event, shares her perspective.

A meeting that was meant to foster collaboration and solutions instead ended divisively with a focus on well-known problems and misplaced criticism of charter schools. The charter school representatives on the panel attempted to dispel myths surrounding the charter movement (we do not "cream" or "cherry-pick" students or parents, we do not "steal" public, tax-payer funds, we do not take away public school buildings that "belong" to district schools). Ultimately, however, a discussion that should have focused around the future of the communities we serve instead became a conversation fueled by teachers' anxiety about their futures.

This is what I would have liked to share with the teachers on the panel and in the audience:

Charter schools tend to evolve in neighborhoods where parents have been historically disempowered from being able to have a say in the type of education they want their children to receive. Parents who choose to send their students to charter schools are like any other parents - they want their children to have a quality education in a safe and nurturing environment. If we look at education from this perspective, what we see is not charter schools "stealing" students, but charter schools simply offering parents a choice. Anyone who is against a charter school is indirectly suggesting that they are against offering parents an alternative education system for their students when the current one, during the current school year, for their student at his or her current grade level, is broken.

Charter schools tend to offer services and incentives that many district teachers at the town hall said they desired. We tend to have supportive administrators who are "instructional leaders" rather than "operational leaders." We are open to retaining students rather than fostering "social promotion" so that students have a chance to achieve grade level success. We have opportunities for teachers to collaborate and learn from each other, and we allow our teachers the avenues for continued professional development. Many charter school teachers prefaced their comments today with "I taught at an LAUSD school for X years," which goes to show that charter school teachers, leaders, and students are not of a different breed than our neighboring district school teachers, leaders, and students. We are simply teachers, leaders, and students, who have understood the sense of urgency with which we must respond to the current education crisis. We are working in the spirit of solutions, and, as a Green Dot teacher mentioned, the goal of charter schools is to create a world where they don't have to exist. We are simply providing an alternative that should, in reality, be the standard.

The current discussion needs to remove itself from the "charter schools versus district schools" debate, and needs to move toward the "effective versus ineffective schools" debate. We also need to remember that most of the issues surrounding education that divide teachers and create personal wounds have a common irritant and a common balm: funding. If California allocates a realistic and fair budget to its education system, we will see an increase in teacher effectiveness, teacher retention, and student achievement across all types of school systems, and the true winners will be those whom this is all about: our children.

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