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Thursday, April 14, 2005 | This is part four in a four-part series. Read part one, part two and part three.

Charter school enthusiasts say charters should appeal to educators just as much as to students and that they are focusing on teachers to join them in supporting the movement.

The biggest attraction for charter school teachers is that they help set direction and policy for the school, said Gary Larson, vice president of communications for the California Charter Schools Association. He called this an exciting prospect for a group pivotal in the education process but usually cut out of strategic decisions.

“This aspect is critical,” Larson said. “The number one reason teachers leave the profession is a lack of say in decision-making. Charters provide the license to dream.”

Charter governing boards nearly always have teacher representation, which makes teachers true partners with parents and the community in running charter schools, Larson said. They also establish the terms of their contracts and have a voice in setting priorities for spending – which translates into “resources poured into the classroom,” he said.

Although they are technically public, charter schools are unlike traditional schools in many fundamental ways. Once formed, a charter school operates independently of the local school district, with its own board that usually includes parents, teachers and community members. Charters are generally exempt from most laws governing school districts and their boards have the freedom to run the school more like a business.

This means charters hire and fire employees, define salaries and benefits, handle accounting and payroll, pay rent, buy insurance, establish personnel and student policies, provide maintenance and custodial work, purchase supplies and equipment, set schedules for students and staff, make curriculum decisions, formulate strategies and implement instructional philosophies.

The National Education Association says charters may be an effective tool for learning, but warns that charter teachers should be organized to protect against being underpaid and undervalued. San Diego Education Association, which represents 9,000 teachers in the San Diego Unified School District, is a member of the NEA.

Position papers for the NEA, which has 2.7 million members nationwide, state that “charter schools should be subject to the same public sector labor relations statutes as traditional public schools, and charter school employees should have the same collective bargaining rights as their counterparts in traditional public schools.”

But charter advocates say unbending union rules are part of the problem with public education and have led to a void in experienced, qualified teachers at the neediest schools. This, they say, creates insurmountable obstacles to student success. Charter schools can only succeed if they are free from union restrictions that stifle reform by placing narrow, systemwide conditions on teacher employment and pay, they say.

Rather than focusing on salaries and benefits, Larson prefers to talk about other advantages of charter schools for teachers, especially the direct involvement in governance. “There’s more to it than just freedom from the unions,” he said. “In order to treat teachers like professionals, they need to have choices.” He said the key to the movement’s growth has been attracting qualified teachers.

Both sides agree that teachers are integral to the success of education, pointing to research that consistently shows how a good teacher can make a significant difference in learning.

Some teachers eager to participate

Often, these schools serve poor or minority students, and suffer from high teacher turnover, gangs and violence problems, deplorable facility conditions, lack of district support and scarce instructional resources.

For example, the charter application for Gompers Middle School, one of the lowest performing schools in the SDUSD, included a petition with signatures from 58 percent of Gompers teachers endorsing the charter.

At a March board meeting when trustees considered the Gompers charter, Gompers English and social science teacher Lisa Young told the school board she supported the charter to address the issue of high teacher and staff turnover, saying it was at unacceptable levels. “We’ve had four principals in two years, and we started the school year with 18 vacancies,” she said.

Gompers music teacher Sharletta Richardson, who has commuted to the Gompers campus in southeast San Diego from Mira Mesa for the past 29 years, told trustees that her name was first on the list to support the Gompers charter. “I taught at Gompers when it was one of the leading academic schools in the district,” she said. “I know that our neighborhood students can achieve like that again.”

SDEA union president Terry Pesta did not support the Gompers charter, endorsing instead an autonomy plan that would not have provided charter organizers with the extensive freedom they sought. Neither Pesta nor union executive director Robin Whitlow returned phone calls for this story.

Sometimes school boards themselves, the entities required to approve the charters, can create barriers, with board members reluctant to give up on failing public schools within their jurisdiction. These trustees worry about the perception that an endorsement of a charter school is an admission of defeat.

Choices in education

Zealous charter school supporters fervently believe charters provide healthy choices for students, involve parents in their children’s education and give teachers the freedom to try new strategies. They also say the schools relieve over-regulated educators from bureaucratic barriers, can increase student achievement and have the potential to spark change systemwide. They also freely admit that, as with any revolutionary movement, there are wrinkles to iron out.

Skeptics worry about false promises, limited success rates, the negative effects of competition in education, lack of responsible oversight, financial misconduct, inadequate protection for employees, the deleterious consequences of closing charters down, and adherence to high educational standards.

But there is no disagreement about the numbers – charter schools have caught on. Many wonder, though, if the schools will survive as viable alternatives in public education. The movement’s growth signifies, for now, the willingness of parents to accept the notion of choice in education and this has educators taking notice.

Said San Diego Unified’s Brian Bennett, “I believe parents are the primary educators and ought to be able to exercise any choice under state law that is provided to them.”

“‘One size fits all’ doesn’t cut it because California is so diverse,” Larson said. “Parents are voting with their feet.”

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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