Tuesday, August 31, 2010

In defense of charter schools

There is a frequent accusation leveled at charter schools that they tend to siphon off the best and the brightest in a given school population, that they can pick and choose who they serve, and that if the students there don't make it, they are sent back to their home school, all of which add up to an unfair advantage in favor of charters. I've been involved in the field of education for 23 years now, at traditional public schools, various types of private schools, and I'm currently working at a charter school. While I do think the idea of "free market choice" and "competition" between schools is a horrifically bad idea, there are very good reasons that charter schools exist, and it is not necessarily because of sub par local public schools, but that the current public school model has its origins in the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution; the problem is that while education and students have changed, the model has not. It is antiquated, and the politicians, administrators, school board members, and even parents in a position to initiate the necessary changes are too afraid to do it, and the taxpayers who constantly push for "better schools" are at the same time unwilling to step up and pay the taxes necessary to affect those very changes upon which they insist.

The charter school conundrum is an interesting one. On the one hand, I have certain philosophical difficulties with for-profit charter schools. But then, I have philosophical difficulties with any corporation that is set up directly and solely to work with schools and is a for-profit institution. It aggravates me to no end to see various companies charge schools double, triple, or more for things like books and videos that can be had for a fraction of the cost at a local store; it seems the philosophies of these companies is "hey, it's just taxpayers' dollars, so let's take all we can get." But I digress.

To be perfectly honest, public school education provides a more than adequate education for the vast majority of the school age population. The methods of delivery of the information and the like is in need of modification; I won't say "reform" because the politicians have nicely destroyed that word, especially within the context of education, thank you very much. However, there is a definite percentage of students at both ends of the population spectrum whose needs are not met by a traditional public school setting, no matter how progressive that school/district may be. If the parents of that child can afford it, that is often where private and/or parochial schools come in; charter schools provide yet another option, especially for the students whose parents are unable to afford a private school. Many, if not most, charter schools are independent entities though some are part of a national chain of schools.

I find it ironic that when a school district sets up a "magnet school," it is seen as a progressive step towards reform and is lauded by parents, politicians, and various and sundry others within the community. Yet if a charter is set up, that charter school is viewed with suspicion and distrust, yet I am not sure there is really that much of a difference between a magnet school and a charter school. Both are set up to work with specific, specialty populations; both are free to the public; both work "outside the norm" of their district; both are able to create their own set of expectations, both academic and behavioral, for its students.

Are charter schools the cure and panacea for all that ails a district? Not any more than a magnet school is. Yet neither are they the evil that so many make them out to be.

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