It’s not surprising that the candidates did not speak in favor of charter schools, but it is surprising that none of them tried to claim the mantle of firmest fighter against charters. Yet, to truly do so, a candidate would have had to go beyond the usual rhetoric. Warren, to pick one example, has insisted that charter schools have to “meet the same standards” as traditional public schools. Other candidates home in on test scores and college matriculation rates.
But a real watchdog for the needs of charter students must go further, asking whether teachers are fairly compensated and supported and whether students are treated with respect and dignity. America’s first system of free schools, designed to educate the poor, was plagued by poor compensation and training for teachers and cruel discipline for students — undermining the very purpose of education. When considering whether charter schools are good for kids or bad, today’s leaders need to start with a tough question: Do they repeat those centuries-old mistakes?
In the United States’ first half-century, the definition of what constituted “public” education was not very clear. Funding for schools came from both private philanthropy and public taxes. Oversight was usually managed by a haphazard mix of volunteer elites. One fact was evident: Education for poor students was often abysmal, sometimes worse than no schooling at all.
This led many urban leaders to share the worries of New York’s mayor and future governor, DeWitt Clinton, who warned of cities becoming “the nurseries and hotbeds of crimes.” In response, many leaders, like Clinton, embraced reformer Joseph Lancaster’s too-good-to-be-true new vision of schools for the urban poor. Until Lancaster’s time, families without money for school tuition had few options. There were some tuition-free church schools, sometimes called “charity” schools. But they could not handle the number of low-income children who thronged the streets of America’s cities in the early 1800s.
Lancaster offered a simple solution: modern, efficient new charity schools for all poor children. With a single teacher, Lancaster promised, thousands of children could learn to write, read and behave.
The key to Lancaster’s system — and its downfall — was his elimination of teachers’ salaries. Instead of paid teachers, Lancaster employed advanced students — monitors — to teach less-advanced ones. The savings allowed Lancaster to advertise his new approach as a “School for the Cheap Education of Youth.”
This tactic was not Lancaster’s only innovation. Instead of traditional corporal punishment, Lancaster advocated strict control of student behavior by humiliation and emotional manipulation. He insisted that his students always behave with military-style “respectful attention.” When he spoke to them, students must make “the necessary reply without delay or hesitation but always be careful to speak consistently with their knowledge and to express themselves in as few comprehensive words as they are able.”
Lancaster apparently didn’t worry much about his own grammar and punctuation, but he cared intensely about controlling student behavior. If students ever spoke more words than necessary or didn’t show the proper respect, Lancaster would subject them to an escalating series of punishments. At first, misbehaving students would have a log hung around their necks with a note attached describing their infraction.
If necessary, Lancaster moved on to his “most terrible” punishment: repeat offenders would be suspended “in a sack, or in a basket” from the roof of the school. Other students would be encouraged to mock the transgressors, laughing at the “birds in the cage.”
To the dismay of Lancaster and his naive allies, this system flopped. For one thing, teachers left. In New York, for example, the administrators of the free schools found that teachers — even young ones — refused to work without pay.
And they weren’t the only ones who stopped showing up. Students did, too. In 1827, African American parents voiced their dissatisfaction with conditions at their charity school. “We cannot believe,” they wrote in Freedom’s Journal, “that almost any one is qualified to keep a school for our children.” Parents objected to teachers who accused their children of “dulness [sic] and stupidity.” And they voted with their feet.
Of an estimated 2,500 African American children in New York in 1827, only 600 of them attended the free school. Parents did not accept low-quality schools that did not offer their children any real chance at learning anything beyond the mere basics. And they refused to accept poorly trained teachers who browbeat and humiliated their children. Like parents today, they wanted, first and foremost, to know that their children would be treated well while receiving a high-quality education in school.
What does any of this have to do with today’s charter schools? While many of today’s charter schools offer inclusive, effective education for students, the policies at some charters sound eerily similar to Lancaster’s failed charity model.
Many charter schools, for example, have relied on teachers without much training or preparation, coming from programs such as Teach For America (TFA). While many TFA teachers are enormously talented and generous, they have not received much training or practice before they are thrown into their high-stress, high-responsibility jobs. To be sure, today’s TFA teachers receive better summer training and more on-the-job coaching than did teachers in TFA’s first years. At the outset, however, like Lancaster’s child teachers, TFA teachers are expected to do one of the most difficult jobs in the world without much more than a knack for it.
Similarly, some charter schools favor a neo-Lancasterian “no excuses” model of student behavior, a model that relies on strict control of students at all times. When students wiggle outside the lines, the punishments can be shockingly severe. At one New York charter school, for example, teachers were recorded viciously singling out students for the tiniest infractions. And the KIPP network of charter schools originally encouraged teachers to isolate misbehaving students on “the bench.” Early KIPP schools required some students to wear color-coded T-shirts publicizing their misbehavior; they sometimes forced students to maintain strict monastic silence even outside of class. KIPP Foundation CEO Richard Barth labeled these practices “mistakes,” admitting, “There are practices that we did in the beginning that we out and out abhor."
When leaders debate the fate of charter schools, they need to range beyond their traditional focus only on improving test scores or increasing college-attendance rates. Instead, the lessons of the 19th century should prompt policymakers to question whether charter schools segregate students or inflict conditions on students that affluent families would not be asked to accept?
Like the NAACP and Black Lives Matter, politicians should recognize the obvious historical lesson of “charity” schools. Pushing parents to enroll students in schools that treat children like second-class citizens is not giving them a real “choice.” The policy focus should be on improving all public schools and offering all families authentic choices of different education types, not on segregating lower-income students into 21st-century charity schools due to our shortsighted obsession with test scores.
Before diverting more tax dollars to charter schools, our leaders should ask about more than results on standardized tests. They should ask if charters return to the woeful old “charity” mind-set. If the answer is yes — whatever test scores might say — we will know there is a fundamental flaw in the program.