By Rich Haglund, Chief Operating Officer at the Illinois Network of Charter Schools
Adults with the means to do so regularly exercise school choice – by moving, by attending private school, or by homeschooling their children. In most communities, unless a large percentage of school-consuming families exercise choice suddenly, the existing public schools are not forced to adjust to consumer choices.
The existence of charter public schools enables another group of adults to shop for schools and to more significantly impact operations of the dominant public school operator. And because research has shown that teacher working conditions closely parallel student learning conditions, policy makers and education consumer should welcome employers competing for employees.
Creating choices of employers among public school operators may – understandably – make the existing public school operator uncomfortable. Representatives of teachers and central office staff usually bemoan the impact on supposedly scarce resources, as if education were a zero-sum game. There is only one public school game in town, they say. And the introduction of an alien player – charter public schools – is draining resources from that previously closed system. Never do those stakeholders mention that the customers have also left the closed system, so the obligation of the remaining service providers is reduced.
The introduction of new public school employers should create discomfort for the existing, dominant provider. It should prompt the provider to introspection and consideration of how it can distinguish itself as an education system that families should value and as an employer of first choice. Compensation of teachers in district and charter public schools is usually comparable. So, the district should ask itself, as most employers regularly do, why should people want to work for us? How do we support our teachers? Do they thrive with development opportunities, common planning time, and clear paths to expand their impact (teacher leaders, coaches, academic leads, e.g.)? Are they provided with the support needed to allow them to focus on teaching (social workers, counselors, operations staff)? Or, are they being asked to handle lots of administrative, bureaucratic work on top of the long hours in the classroom with kids they love but who can admittedly challenge their patience?
Multiple public school employers should create discomfort for charter school employers, too. Closing long persistent opportunity gaps for minority and poor students won’t happen when passionate, capable teachers are burning out doing what they love. (Sure, Dr. J. said that being a professional means doing what you love when you don’t feel like doing it. But, one can only take so many days that are too long and devoid of supporting teammates before deciding to be a different kind of professional.)
Advocates for quality public education for all students often speak of empowering families to drive change through choices. The existence and development of chartering and authorizing public schools has, in my opinion and observation, kept and drawn more people with skill and passion into public education. So we should all support policies and practices that enable these dedicated teachers, leaders, and other school staff to exercise choice in ways that would enrich their professional satisfaction and drive public school operators (district or charter) to make their schools not only great places for learning, but great places to teach.