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Who Sends Their Kids to Charter Schools?

Nearly two million American children attend charter schools. Who are they, and who's teaching them?
(Photo: Ellen McKnight/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Ellen McKnight/Shutterstock)

“It’s actually a little bit difficult to talk about because I'm very resentful,” says Mari Mejor, who met with me at a Portland coffee shop to talk about her experiences at Trillium Charter School, which she attended the first two years after it opened.

I'm talking to Mejor—who I've known through mutual friends for several years—because I'm curious about the charter-school movement. Charter schools, which receive public funding but are privately administered, have grown rapidly over the past decade, both in terms of enrollment (1.8 million elementary and secondary students attended a charter school in the 2010-11 year, up from 340,000 in 1999-00) and the number of schools. Five percent of U.S. schools were charters in 2010-11, up from just two percent in 1999.

The first state charter law was passed in Minnesota in 1991, and in the two decades since, a majority of U.S. states have followed suit, with just eight that haven't passed any sort of legislation. Many charter schools started from scratch, in abandoned retail spaces or modular buildings; some are traditional schools that decided to go the charter route; some have a religious affiliation.

The charter movement is often criticized as a step toward privatization of the public school system, and pro-charter lobbying groups are much more likely to contribute to Republican candidates than Democrats. But on the ground, the movement is more difficult to categorize politically.

A charter school is slightly more likely to be managed by a non-profit organization than a for-profit charter management organization; in fact, the idea of charters was conceived by progressive educator Ray Budde, who in 1974 suggested creating charter schools within larger schools as a space where teachers could experiment with new curricula and teaching methods, with the idea that when experiments were successful, they could be replicated elsewhere.

Still, I was curious about the face of the movement: who starts charter schools and who sends their children to them? So I put out a call on social media and contacted charter schools in Portland, where I live, paying visits to the two schools that responded positively to my request.

The most comprehensive study comparing students' performance at charter schools to their performance at traditional public schools found that charter students do as well or slightly better than students at traditional schools.

AS A CHILD, MEJOR says, she was an excellent student, first at private schools in Mexico, then at a traditional grade school in Portland, then at a Portland magnet school.

When Trillium opened, it was touted as a non-traditional, progressive learning environment, and Mejor’s mother thought it would be good for her. But in hindsight, she says, the school's program was too unstructured for a middle schooler whose interest in academia was flagging: “I took a photography class where would literally skip and go to a cafe for a couple of hours.”

Mejor ended up transferring back to her magnet school and then dropping out for several years. Now in her 20s, she's studying mathematics at Portland Community College and Portland State University, and while she has issues with the way math and science are taught in traditional schools, one thing that really bothers her in hindsight is that at Trillium, she wasn't required to take a single mathematics class—though she did take about a semester of geometry. What sparked her interest in going back to school, she says, was moving to New Haven, Connecticut, and sitting in on classes at Yale, which were rigorous, but also fun.

“I felt like I'd been colorblind before, and all of a sudden I could see all these things that I couldn't,” Mejor says. What's more, she says, Yale students and graduates weren't any smarter than the smart people she'd met in other walks of life; they just had a more fundamental and obvious belief in what they could accomplish. She also says that as a teenager, she had a really disdainful attitude toward math, science, and engineering. These were disciplines for boring, uncreative people, she says. Interesting people gravitated toward the arts.

As it happened, Trillium was one of two Portland-area schools that responded positively to my request for a visit. The school is situated in a former heavy equipment rental center on a major thoroughfare in a rapidly-gentrifying section of North Portland, and has about 300 students in its K-12 program.

As I waited for Kieran Connolly, Trillium’s executive director, to meet with me, I grabbed a copy of the school newspaper, which included a front-page article about the school's only sports team, an ultimate Frisbee team called the Fighting Flowers. The team is in danger of disbanding due to lack of organization, according to the article, which even suggested students' and faculty's lack of experience with extracurricular sports was part of the problem. Tickled as I was by the Fighting Flowers as a mascot, I was also impressed that a school-sponsored publication allowed writers to point out problems and even criticize the school's prevailing culture. Writers for my own high school newspaper could only do this in the most guarded and circuitous way possible.

“I didn't grow up wanting to be a teacher, or a principal,” Connolly says, recounting that he started teaching in outdoor schools and later in alternative schools—and was drawn in by the concept of “democratic education,” which connotes voting, but is really about working in collaboration with students. “Any time I could collaborate with my students, things went so much better.”

Connolly says his interest in working at Trillium was less about working for a charter school than it was in working for Trillium in particular. He doesn't mince words when talking about the charter movement as a whole. “They were supposed to be experimental,” he says. “The people who founded the charter school movement allowed it to be co-opted.”

If charters have not universally become, as critics like Diane Ravitch have warned, a gateway toward privatization, they've definitely become a flash point for critics of teachers' unions. (Charter schools are non-union and their faculty often make less than teachers at traditional schools.) The documentary Waiting for Superman, whose director, Davis Guggenheim, earned progressive bonafides after the release of An Inconvenient Truth, lionizes the CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone charter, while never pointing out that it's vastly better funded than neighboring schools—and blaming the failure of the public school system on teachers' unions' willingness to protect “bad teachers,” while using a circular definition of bad teacher.”

No teacher at Trillium wants to de-fund public education, Connolly tells me, also pointing out that teachers and faculty make less than their peers in the Portland school district, and the school is less well-funded than other Portland Public Schools, which get a 20-percent cut of Trillium's allocation from Oregon’s Department of Education.

Connolly also speaks candidly about the fact that Trillium is largely white, while being located in a historically black, if rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Portland. “I think there's a responsibility to address internal racism and work with the district on that,” he says, adding that he sees his responsibility as an educator as twofold: it's partly to educate the kids and partly to help influence the national conversation about what works and what doesn't in schools.

Connolly takes me on a tour of the school, which includes donated computers, a rooftop vegetable garden provided by a grant from a local civic organization, and a small blacktop playground. We end up in the high school journalism class, where I'm introduced as a reporter studying charter schools, and where I've been asked to answer a few questions about myself and my career.

Students ask about my work habits and whether I write on my own, or for fun. One tells me she's never been to any other school and asks what they’re like. “It kind of depends on where you live,” I say, adding that there are differences between big schools in wealthy suburbs and small, rural districts and inner-city schools. I tell them that my high school was “small, but not as small as Trillium,” and very conservative by comparison. The students are then left to work on their stories for the next paper, which are due that week. Connolly sits at a table and chats with students about their stories, offering to read them as they go.

A student named Ivy walks up to where I'm sitting and offers more detail on her experience at Trillium. She attended kindergarten at a different school and hated it, she says. She thought it was just that she didn't like the kids and that the problem was just that all kids are mean, but now she realizes the administration didn't do enough to prevent bullying at school. Now a senior, Ivy’s the only student who's been at Trillium for the entire 12 years it's existed, and she says the small size “makes rivalries difficult, but also dating. Everybody's friends and everybody's single.”

Ivy says she's thinking about going to art school after she graduates—“as you can probably guess,” she adds, waving her hand to indicate her wedge cut, day-glo orange earrings, and flannel shirt—but is worried about the “lifetime of crippling debt” that would probably entail.

Ivy and the other teenagers at Trillium strike me as self-aware, creative, and funny—the kind of kids I would have wanted as friends when I was their age and half-heartedly chanting along at mandatory pep assemblies.

Mejor told me she's sure the school has improved over the years. From the numbers, it's hard to tell one way or another. Trillium's on-time graduation rate hovers at or below that of Portland Public Schools, with the district's numbers being pretty dismal. About two out of three Portland Public School students can be expected to graduate on time. At Trillium in 2012, eight kids dropped out, and two stayed on for a fifth year—and the numbers for other Portland-area charter high schools are worse.

The most comprehensive study comparing students' performance at charter schools to their performance at traditional public schools found that charter students do as well or slightly better than students at traditional schools, with black and Latino students in poverty showing the most improvement. Minority students, and kids living in poverty, are dramatically overrepresented in some charter schools, though some strive to represent the districts they're in.

THE SECOND SCHOOL I visited, a grade school named Arthur Academy, is a cluster of out buildings in East Portland but is also part of a chain of six schools in the area. It opened in 2002 with a focus on “direct instruction”—where, essentially, 10 percent of what students do every day is new and 90 percent is review. It works particularly well for students with average or lower-than-average test scores who want to catch up, says Stephani Walker, the director of academics and leadership for the school.

Jill Domine, the director of operations, finance, and human relations at Arthur, says the school was started with money from the Walton Foundation (the charitable arm of Walmart), as well as incentive cash from the state of Oregon—but those funds have since dried up. “We rock,” Domine says, in terms of test scores and academic performance, “but we still run into issues of being accepted by the district. We have less funding and access to facilities.”

Domine says part of the reason the school isn't well accepted is that it's non-union, but there's also a perception that they funnel money away from Portland Public Schools, when in fact they've brought some kids—and their funding—in from other districts. “I would, as a district, be appreciative of the extra students and extra money on their pocket,” she says.

“A lot of the charter schooling and home schooling is people who don't want their kids exposed to things like evolution, or is based on racist or exclusionary principles,” says Markus Roberts, whose three children attend Forest Grove Community School, which opened in 2007 in a former funeral home in Forest Grove, a farm-town-turned-exurb 25 miles west of Portland.

Roberts attended early planning meetings for the school, and he says that early on, organizers were less interested in “pandering to parents' fears” than in getting parents involved and enthusiastic. One parent, he says, said, “I want my kids taught the things I don't want them to know” in a meeting—and the school's culture makes it open to discussing dangerous chemicals in a chemistry class, or addressing alternative lifestyles and social justice issues.

Roberts and his family lived in Costa Rica when his oldest child attended a Montessori school—“a very open, international school, a very enriching environment.” Then they moved back to the United States, first living in Arizona (where the public school his son attended was “not an enriching environment”) and then moving to Oregon and making contact with staff at the newly-formed charter school.

Roberts helped start a math club for students, and later a gizmotics club, the thrust of which is to give students hands-on experiences with the kinds of problems engineers face by asking them to build devices with arbitrary requirements. The school actively encourages parental involvement, with other parents leading acting and improv groups, and one helping start a garden on school grounds. Roberts was tagged to lead the math club after, he says, he “grumbled” about the way mathematics is taught during a planning meeting.

“Some organizations you contact them it's very clear what the hierarchy is. In a military organization, it's the rank on their shoulder. In a company, you can tell managers by their name tags,” Roberts says. “At this school it was hard to tell the teachers from the administrators from the parents from the teachers.”

ALMOST EVERYONE I TALKED to for this story lived in Oregon, where 3.7 percent of students are enrolled in charter schools, compared to 5.9 percent in California, 12 percent in Arizona, and a whopping 37.8 percent in the District of Columbia. The Center for Education Reform gave the state a C for charter education support, and I suspect if I'd focused my reporting elsewhere, I would have walked into a completely different set of schools and groups of people. The charter concept is so broad that it can include grassroots schools, those built around certain educational philosophies, for-profit chain schools, and religiously based centers.

Most of the people I spoke with seemed less interested in, or aligned with, the charter movement as a whole. In fact, almost all were ambivalent or skeptical about it, and the founder of a chain of California charters told me he thinks most of the political barriers to charter creation should be there. This just happens to be the tool kit parents, teachers, and communities have to do something slightly different from what other schools might be doing.

Roberts says he'd like to see more “secular, left-wing” minded people in the charter school movement. In most cases, it seems, conservatives have dominated the conversation, he says. “When people say, 'Think of the children,' almost always what they're talking about is put your hands over that kids' eyes so that they don't see something horrible,” Roberts says. “They almost always mean, let's protect this kid from something that causes them to have thoughts.”