Measuring Up

Ting Sun, executive director of Natomas Charter School, on the role of charter schools in public education

Back Q&A Aug 13, 2018 By Rich Ehisen

When it comes to charter schools, people seem to either love them or hate them. We sat down with Ting Sun, executive director of the Natomas Charter School and a member of the California State Board of Education, to talk about the role charter schools play in modern education.

How would you assess the state of California’s charter schools today?  

The original intent of charters was to provide flexibility within the traditional public school system to engender and promote innovation. In that way, we have been successful over the last 25 years in expanding educational options within the California public school system. What we haven’t been as successful in is taking that innovation and pushing it out to the larger system. We were supposed to be little laboratories of innovation, and the hope was we would take our ideas and they would spread. It hasn’t done that as well, mainly because charters have become so politicized. The thinking seems to be that if you are for charter schools, you’re not for teacher unions. Or if you are for teacher unions, then you’re not for charter schools. That has unfortunately established a ‘them against us’ attitude, which does not help in that sense of collaboration and working together.

We have been successful over the last 25 years in expanding educational options within the California public school system. What we haven’t been as successful in is taking that innovation and pushing it out to the larger system.
What do you say to critics who contend that charters drain funds away from public schools?

Charter schools are public schools, so saying that charter schools are taking away from the public school system doesn’t quite make sense. Charter schools are funded just like traditional school districts, based on per student attendance. It’s not taking funds out of the public school system; it’s a shifting of funds to a different type of school. The idea behind options and school choice is for parents to be able to  choose. Those funds don’t belong to the school districts or to schools — they belong to the students.

Critics say charters are not held to the same transparency and accountability standards as traditional public institutions. Is that actually the case?

There is a mistaken belief that charter schools don’t have to do the same things as public schools, and that’s not true. We all have to report in the same way. It’s a balance: the flexibility of waiving some of the red tape versus the accountability piece. Ultimately, there was a trade-off. Without having to follow all of the education code and laws that apply to districts, the ultimate accountability for charter schools is that if you aren’t successful, if you aren’t making student growth, then you’re closed down. And that accountability doesn’t apply to traditional schools or traditional school districts.

Research shows that charter student’s educational performance is on par with their counterparts in traditional public schools. What means do charter schools have to live up to the promise of ensuring kids a better education than they would get in a non-charter public school?

There’s different ways to address that question. One is to ask ‘what is the measuring stick we are trying to use?’ Charter schools are supposed to be very different from the traditional system, and there are all kinds of charter schools in this state that serve many different kinds of student populations. In my school, for instance, we have a homeschool academy, a traditional elementary, a performing and fine arts academy, a virtual learning hybrid, a high school and our original middle school program that’s very focused on a certain methodology. So I don’t know what kind of information you would get when you compare this very different set of unique schools that serve very different populations to the traditional system. In that regard, we need to look at what we want to measure when it comes to charter schools. The accountability measure should be how well your theory of action is working with those students.

Some critics contend that charters informally encourage de facto segregation, by race, economic class and even by disability. How do charters address these concerns?

You have to look at each charter school a little bit differently. You can’t cast all of them in the same light. Charter schools are public schools, and there are clear non-discrimination laws in place that apply to us. The larger issue is around school choice. I think the perception is that some parents who are more well-informed will be able to do the research and find the school option that’s just right for their child, whereas there may be other student populations that will not have that access. That’s not a function of charters discriminating; it is more of a function of how we ensure access to the information around education options available within the public school system. The original idea was that charters were supposed to actually be a tool to reform school districts, so there would be more site-based decision making and there would be choices within a school district. But now that we have charters that ignore districts and districts that ignore charters, the information around educational options within that district falls through the cracks for a lot of our parent population.

What advice would you give to someone looking to start a charter in their community?

With any charter, you should be moving toward a vision and not running away from something. Don’t start a charter school because you don’t like the school down the street. Start a charter school because you have a vision for how you are going to serve certain types of students. Second is to remember that with the flexibility of chartering there is also accountability. You need to hold yourself accountable. You have to set your goals high and you have to make sure that you’re going to be achieving them because it’s a privilege to be able to do something like this. The third thing is don’t start a school just to repeat what already exists. It’s about innovation, and if you’re not going to take a risk and do something innovative because you passionately believe in it, don’t start a charter. It’s a lot of work, and especially now. It’s very political and so you really have to believe in what you’re doing and be very passionate about it.

Virtual learning is becoming a powerful tool in education. What are the benefits and challenges of online classes?

While you can build a certain level of relationships online, you really need face-to-face human interaction in order to have that relationship building. At the same time, if you choose to only do things in the traditional way … with the teacher at the front of the room and the students in the desks — even though that’s face to face, I don’t know that it’s building relationships either. This upcoming generation of students are used to being online. They’re used to being constantly connected. We educators cannot ignore that. So how do you balance that developing of human connection while utilizing some of these tools students are used to operating within? That’s one of the big challenges in educating the current generation of students.

How do you attract quality teachers in California, and how do you keep them here?

It’s not just about putting more money into public education — it’s what do we do with that money. Let’s say teachers work 180 student attendance days. Most teachers’ contracts are 185 days, five more than students are actually attending. That’s not a regular work year; it’s actually only maybe three-quarters of a work year. If you look at a teachers’ daily rate, it’s actually not too bad. But … it’s like they are seasonal workers. That’s why salaries are so low. I think California needs to extend teacher work years. Because there’s such an achievement gap, students need to come to school during the summers. We need to have more intercession workshops. There is definitely work for teachers to do, but we’re still based on the whole agricultural system where you don’t start until after the harvest. So what we need to do is take a look at the larger system, and how we fund it and how the people within that system are working. 

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