I’ve always been a critic of blanket generalizations that fuel debates about education (public schools are failing, students are ill-prepared when they graduate from high school, we’re lagging behind other nations in terms of academic achievement, teachers are greedy/lazy/ineffective, unions are ruining the world, etc.), so it would be wrong for me to claim that all charter schools are “bad.” And in the spirit of full disclosure, I acknowledge that there are charter schools that serve their students well—and, certainly, that there are many wonderful charter school teachers.
But my fundamental problem, which I can’t seem to reconcile, is with the very IDEA (no pun intended) of charter schools–and here are a few reasons why:
- The very presence and expansion of charter schools sends the immediate (and arrogant) message that traditional public schools, which are cornerstones of the American democratic structure, are entities from which people should seek to flee. I’ve spoken before of this kind of “abandonment policy,” which all of us know is an inherent acknowledgement that whatever one is abandoning is not worth the time, effort, or money necessary to improve it. What message does this send to the general population—and, more specifically, to the kids who are left in public schools? They’ve already been given up on by outsiders who think they can do things “better.”
- Most charters like to claim that their students perform “better” than those in traditional public schools—yet those charters fail to cite their attrition rates (I’ve seen statistics that in some charters upwards of 40% of students are “counseled out” before they have a chance to graduate—and guess where they go? Back to public schools, which must educate ALL STUDENTS), their disproportionately-high suspension rates/three-strikes-you’re out policies, strict disciplinary procedures/punishments that would never be tolerated in public schools, and policies that allow them to select the types of students they want to enroll (generally, fewer special education students, learners with disabilities and certain medical conditions, English Language Learners, percentage of students living in poverty, etc).
- Public charters siphon money from public schools, further crippling those schools—many of which are operating on bare-bones budgets that result in class sizes of 40+ students, buildings with few–if any–guidance counselors, and nurses’ offices that are alarmingly understaffed (most recently, see Philadelphia). In fact, On September 12th, AFT President Randi Weingarten, for the first time in her career are a teacher/union leader, was actually denied access to Lincoln High School in Philadelphia—because, she assumes, the conditions there were so bad that school officials didn’t want her to witness them.
- Charters’ advertising campaigns deliberately take advantage of public schools’ financial crises (and, further, misuse and misrepresent “data” to advance the false claim that public schools are failing) to support the notion that their schools are “better.” In Philadelphia, for example, the local ABC affiliate cheerily broadcast that KIPP charters were ready to welcome students in the beginning of September—while at the very same time, the School District of Philadelphia’s September 9th opening was in jeopardy until just weeks before the deadline because the city’s mismanagement of public education funding since the late 1980s had finally caught up to them. But somehow, KIPP had the money it needed to open its schools on time—and with ample resources–while $45 million in funding is still being withheld by Governor Corbett until teachers’ unions agree to take pay cuts (some proposals cite cuts of up to 13%, in addition to increased contributions to benefits packages).
- Bogus performance claims: charters (much like the Teach for America organization and many of its corps members) like to claim they’re able to close the “achievement gap” (which we all know is more of an “opportunity gap,” but that’s an entirely different issue)—but their claim to success centers largely around standardized test scores that most people acknowledge are fundamentally flawed. It’s one thing to teach children to pass a test using “drill and kill” exercises, but it’s quite another to implement an educational experience that focuses on educating the whole child—rather than teaching children tips and strategies to pass standardized tests that really don’t show much about authentic learning at all—and certainly don’t inspire a love of learning in children. And again, keep in mind that most charters have much more control of their populations than public schools do, so comparisons in test scores can be virtually invalid.
- Charters boast of small class sizes, favorable student-teacher ratios, and instructional freedom (in 2012, Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said that “we’ve learned that eliminating unnecessary restrictions on how we teach, and breaking down the barriers of who can help children learn, has enhanced how children can achieve, learn, and develop”). Yet public schools teachers–now more than ever– are crippled by restrictions: they’re being told what to teach, how to teach, how to assess, when to assess (yet nobody really wants to discuss how much money is costs to assess and how doing so violates children’s/families’ privacy) and, essentially, that anything that’s not “measurable” is not worth learning. The testing frenzy that’s taken over the country–a direct result of RTTT–is causing very public opposition from teachers, administrators, and parents alike.
- In some cases, charters actually contribute to the social stratification and segregation that plague many communities by enrolling only students of a specific race, ethnicity, or creed.
- In the interest of time, energy, and space, I can’t even get into the issue of privately-owned, for-profit charters here, because, quite frankly, the profiteering that goes on in those institutions is sickening.
All of the conditions listed above result in one thing: a misrepresentation and manipulation of flawed data that ultimately depicts public schools, which are victims of poor governmental oversight/financial management, crippling restrictions, and calculated aspersions, as entities that cannot serve children (particularly those in urban settings) properly. In short, conditions in urban public schools are becoming so unbearable that charter operators prey on families frustrated with overcrowding and underfunding in their neighborhood schools to present themselves as some sort of revolutionary, miracle cure-all.
So what’s left to do? Advocates of public education must continue to shed light on the farce that “school choice” helps public education—because once one understands the larger scope of the movement, it becomes clear that charters have just the opposite effect on public schools.
And if we are to continue to exist as a country that values its public education system, we must pour all of our energy–in a united effort–into supporting public school children, teachers, and administrators and addressing the underlying social conditions that make learning difficult for so many, rather than haphazardly dangling superficially-appealing, superficially-tested, quick-fix alternatives (which really aren’t “fixes” at all) to public schools that ultimately hoodwink the general public into thinking that charters are somehow miracle solutions for society’s woes. On paper and in theory, I understand why charters can be appealing options to some parents and students. In reality, though, the reasons they seem appealing reveal the true injustice being inflicted upon the institution of public education in the United States.