Politics makes strange bedfellows. As a liberal who is theoretically supportive of unions, public education, governmental social programs, and wary of the private marketplace as the engine of justice, equity, and fairness, some may assume I fall into the anti-charter school, anti-school choice camp. Some may assume that I would steadfastly support ‘traditional’ public schools and cast a suspicious eye towards charters as leeches from the private sphere, absorbing public funds for the chosen few from the underserved public who desperately need them. Generally, arguments against charter schools include, but are certainly not limited to:
Charter schools are not being held as accountable as their traditional public school counterparts.
Charter schools are diverting education funds from traditional public schools.
Charter schools are expelling unwanted students.
And charter schools are segregating students into academic tracks.
There are several rebuttals to these assertions, the first and most obvious being that any sentence that claims that all charters do X is inherently false. Charters are, by definition, uniquely bound by their individual charters. Some charter schools have admissions based purely on lotteries. Some charters have admissions based upon zip code. Some charters have admissions based upon academic criteria. Some charters place students into academic tracks, others do not. Some charters have strict expulsion criteria, others are more committed to restorative practices as a means of minimizing their expulsion rates. Some charters have wealthy boards of directors, some charters do not. Most charters, at least here in Pennsylvania, receive considerably fewer dollars per student than their traditional public school counterparts. The point is that when one argues against charter schools as a collective, unified entity, their arguments are inherently incomplete and misleading. But this post isn't about debunking every myth out there. I want to get at the heart of the argument: We ought to support schools that work, period.
Successful public magnet schools that provide outstanding education for students who are admitted based upon scores and interviews should be supported for the niche they serve.
Successful neighborhood schools that provide outstanding education for students who reside in their neighborhoods should be supported for the niche they serve.
Successful charter schools that provide outstanding education for students who are admitted according to that particular school’s charter should be supported for the niche they serve.
Successful private and parochial schools that provide outstanding education for their populations should be supported for the niche they serve.
The larger goal of all of these successful houses of learning is the well-being and development of their student bodies, and if they do so with successful and measurable outcomes, then they deserve our support. The counter, therefore is also true. Any and all schools, regardless of type, that fail to provide outstanding education for its students ought to either be fixed, turned-around, or closed.
We Need to Check Our Privilege
Before we rail against charter schools, or any other form of non-traditional school, and thereby throw our weight behind political initiatives that will limit the access of families to schools of their choice, we need to check our privilege.
The vast majority of us who speak from the comfortable perches of our keyboards are speaking of societal realities that are not our own. The majority of us are not faced with the trauma of having only one option of schooling for our children, let alone that option being a persistently dangerous school with abysmal graduation and/or proficiency rates. Calling for the eradication of, or the severe limitation of charter schools while our own children receive excellent education from schools we have chosen for them,
reeks of hypocrisy and places politics over people. There is no shortage of talking heads spouting vitriol against charter schools in the name of justice and equality and the dismantling of systems of oppression. In the vast majority of cases, these arguments have the best of intentions. However, these very same folk who portray themselves as bulwarks of public education by fighting against the encroachment of charter schools, often fail to check their own privileged standing. To put it simply, they aren’t trapped. They aren’t stuck. They enjoy the choices of educational opportunities for their children other families do not have. Charter schools are, obviously, not perfect. There are many that are fantastic, and some that are woefully unsuccessful. Our conversation, however, needs to move beyond our political entrenchments to actually discussing what works for kids at schools of all types. We must remember what our true goals are; not winning political arguments, but ensuring high-quality schools for all of our children.
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...