The Fragility of the Not-Quite-Charter Model


Please, go now and read Jonathan Mahler’s NYT Magazine profile of RamÛn Gonz·lez, star principal of Middle School 223 in the Bronx. It’s a subtle, illuminating, balanced, superb piece of education journalism, worth reading more than once. Policy debates aside, it’s a portrait of educational heroesóreminding us again how just how hard the best school leaders and teachers must work.

That’s not to say I like everything; there are some really unfair swipes at charter schools.* But there are also some points we need to think about. For instance, it’s true that many children show up at district schools mid-year, “with no more than a utility bill”óand the district schools have to take them. Charters have more control over their enrollment than Mr. Gonzalez does. It’s an advantage. It’s why reaching and serving all neighborhood students is a central challenge for charter schools and why sometimes the sector is criticized. Mahler is right to highlight this difference.

Mahler’s key observation about charter schools, though, comes parenthetically, almost halfway through the article. After describing how Gonz·lez’s best teacher relies on practices he brought from the KIPP charter school network, Mahler writes:

”Whatever ideological issues Gonz·lez has with charter schools, their fingerprints are everywhere at 223, beginning with its dÈcor: the school’s hallways are lined with college pennants, a design innovation popularized by the charter movement.”

Charter fingerprints are indeed everywhere in M.S. 223’s tentative success story, and they go far beyond the pennants.