With the nomination and confirmation of Betsy DeVos as the Education Secretary it is more important now, more than ever, to understand the system of charter schools and school choice in America. I don’t plan on touching on private schools as they are not publically funded, however, much of the same analysis applies to them but magnified ten-fold.
A charter school is a school that receives taxpayer dollars just as a public school does but, unlike a public school, charter schools do not have to follow the same regulations. Often times charter schools will spring up near existing schools and offer a promise of a better education and of a better experience for students. This is where school choice comes into play. School choice allows parents to opt out of their local public school and enroll in a charter school instead. Sometimes this school might be nearby, sometimes it is far out of the community where the student lives. When a parent chooses a school they are entered into a lottery and they hope that their student’s name gets pulled. If their name is pulled they are able to attend the school.
Charter school and school choice always seem to woo those outside of education in a bipartisan way at first glance. Obama, Clinton, and Trump all have supported increased school choice and charter schools at some point in their career. I too was enamored by the charter school I student taught at during the beginning of my career, it seems like such a good idea at first. It is hard to blame charter school and school choice supporters because it seems like a simple business model in which schools competing results in creating the best schools for our students. However, education is not a business (well it should not be…..) and the problem with treating it as such is that, as in business, there are winners and losers. The problem with “losers” in this scenario is that the losers are not businesses but they are kids. Failure should not be an option, we have to succeed, and charter schools and school choice are not the solution.
For each of the reasons below I want to assume that the claims of charter school and school choice folks are correct, that charter schools perform better than public schools, I know this isn’t true across the board but for the sake of argument let’s imagine it is so.
#1: They are a Band-Aid
Charter schools and school choice fail to address the underlying issues in society regarding education. They address the needs for some but fail for the vast majority. Charter school and school choice allow parents in areas where their local school is failing to allow their kids to attend a better school. I get this, if I had children and the only option was a failing school, that was unsafe, with poorly trained teachers, I too would look elsewhere. This is why it is a Band-Aid, it temporarily fixes the problem for some people without ever addressing the wound. Fixing public education in areas where it is failing is, unfortunately, a marathon and not a sprint. Often times the parents that do choose to send their kids to a charter school are the very types of parents that we need to stay in public school to help fix the problems that we have, they actually care! At the end of the day with the parents moving their students out of the public school the problem still remains on the whole for our system. Yes, a few moved to a better situation but the vast majority are still stuck in a poor school and nothing has been done to fix the actual problem, the wound is still seeping.
#2: Students are left behind
One of the realizations I had regarding charter schools came early in my career while doing some interviews for my student teaching assignment. I was placed at a charter school and asked the principal how they selected students. He mentioned the lottery and then talked about where they cap their numbers. At first this seemed like nothing, but I was naïve and hadn’t taught in a school where a cap on student numbers does not exist. By capping numbers charter schools can keep class sizes much lower than in public schools. Well, as expected, this is another perk for attending a charter, would I rather have my student in a class of 25 or 35? The choice is easy. The problem is that many kids get left out or put on a waiting list. These kids must then go back to the public school which still has not had any of its issues addressed. Students like this are left behind.
#3: No lunch rooms, busses, English Language Development, or Special Education
While the lottery for attending a charter school is “fair” many schools, either purposefully or due to funding, stack the lottery in their favor. Charter schools are not required to have the same services that many public schools must offer. These include lunches, busses, ELD services, and Special Education services.
To illustrate how this works lets do a simulation. Pretend it is information night at the local charter where the application process and lottery entry will take place.
There are 500 potential applicants in attendance, there are only 100 spots available. For the sake of making this simulation simple all groups are mutually exclusive (i.e. all special education student are only special education students and not ELLs)
The principal leading the meeting announces that at this school there is not traditional hot lunch, the parents are responsible for providing lunch for their students. This means that if a student is on free and reduced lunch instead of getting lunch and breakfast from the school, they must now buy their own from a store. Of the 200 free and reduced lunch applicants, 100 leave.
The principal then explains that there will be no English Language Development classes, all students admitted to the charter school will be required to be in a grade level English class. 145 of the language learner parents leave.
Next, the principal discusses student drop-off and pickup procedures, due to the fact that the school does not provide any bussing parents need to be patient during pickup and drop-off time. Another 75 of the free and reduced lunch parents leave, they cannot afford to drive their kids to school everyday and it is too far to walk because it isn’t in their community.
Finally, a parent asks what kind of special education services they provide. The principal says that they do not have any special education services but their student is more than welcome to attend in the regular classes. 48 of the special needs students leave with their family.
So who is left!
Is the process fair? On paper, yes. Is it inclusive of all students? Definitely not.
#4: Increase in the existing gaps
If we shift to a charter school and school choice model it is clear that the gap between those with differing needs and the mainstream child will grow greatly. Going back to the simulation in #3, all of those students who are picked will be in classes of 25 while those who are not picked will go back to their neighborhood public school in classes of 35-40. The “haves” who are able to pay for lunches, transportation, and who have no language or special needs will have a better opportunity for growth than the students who must return to public school. In effect we are helping those who are the best off in our society while damning those who are not. We did not fix the education system; again, it is just a Band-Aid.
#5: “When everyone is super, no one is!”
Proponents of charters might say, “Lets make all schools charters!” When I think of creating a system with pure choice and charter schools I think of this quote from The Incredibles, “When everyone is super, no one is!” If we get rid of traditional public schools and all schools are charter based or private we have the same problems as when we started. The reason that charter schools are shiny right now is because they have all of the advantages described in reason 2 and reason 3. When we take these advantages away charter schools become just like any other public school with the same issues. We need to address the real problems in education not shift students to cover them up.
In thinking about magnet schools, especially in urban areas where much of the population is condensed. I do believe it makes sense to allow students to attend high schools with certain foci. If a student is passionate about the arts, then they should be allowed to attend a school of the arts. If they are passionate about science then a STEM school might be for them. There are endless magnet options but the key is that they provide services for any and all students who want to attend, there is no cap and there is no lottery. Essentially they are public schools with a choice element based on interest not ability.
I welcome open discussion! Please comment below!
English Language Development teacher attempting to bring some truth to the table.
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