A few years ago, Pablo Alba was called to the principal’s office to meet with me, an aging white guy he’d never met before. A lanky sophomore, Alba volunteered little beyond a cautious glance upward as he plunked down before me, but he instantly perked up when I asked him about the typical freshman experience at San Francisco’s City Arts and Technology High School. I was conducting research on local organizing and what makes potent charter schools like City Arts work, and I wanted to hear about the student experience. “You make a lot of friends, it’s small,” Alba said, allowing a slight grin.
Alba, who had struggled at the conventional middle school he had previously attended, would thrive at City Arts over the next three years, thanks largely to the young teachers who tirelessly engaged their classes of restless teens. This small campus—which sits atop a knoll overlooking a sea of weathered, two-story flats—offers a relatively rare opportunity for blue-collar families: a shot at college for their kids.
The charter-school movement now serves roughly 2.3 million students nationwide at more than 6,000 campuses—schools that are primarily funded by taxpayers but free from the bureaucracy and tangled union rules typically found at regular public schools. But the movement, which enjoyed a vibrant growth spurt and turns 25 next year, no longer seems to espouse the same grassroots values that it once did. Charter-school management firms like Green Dot in Los Angeles and the Knowledge Is Power Project (KIPP) out of Houston—many of which were founded by dissident parents or educators—and large private donors now orchestrate key sectors of the movement. Many charter schools fail to push learning curves any higher than conventional schools do, a widely circulated (albeit controversial) Stanford University study suggested earlier this year.