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December 5, 2011

Listening to another of those radio shows about Charter Schools reinforced my belief that most people ask the wrong questions about education. Even the usually intelligent NH Pubic Radio host reflected the many biases and assumptions that undermine our ability to focus on the issues that matter for educating all children.

The fundamental question we should be asking is how do we create an educational system that best provides every child with the best opportunities to succeed in the 21st century, not who governs schools or what we call them.

The first widely held bias to address is the perception of elitism. When a caller stated that the parents who seek out charter schools are those who have stronger interest in education, the radio host inferred that he was referring to “middle and upper middle class” parents. This seems to reflect tremendous class bias. Virtually every parent wants a good education for their child. The well off already can seek out other options for their children—they can pay for private schools or move to well off districts. Charters give families without the economic resources the possibility to make choices to help their child get an education that works. I know at our school, it is exactly these low-income parents who find a way to make this opportunity for their child when the opportunity is free. (For example, we had a family with one parent in jail and the other who has a restraining order and they figured out how to get their kid enrolled when the one opportunity for their child (who was struggling in the district school) to be successful by finding another school that was publicly accessible).

Another often perpetuated myth is that public schools are open to all and represent the full range of economic class in the state. This conflates public schools with an individual public school. Of course, every public school has limits of whom can attend, simply defined by district boundaries. A child from East L.A can’t go to school in Beverly Hills. While I hear people question the selection bias of an individual charter on these shows, no one seems to raise the question of how many free and reduced students go to any particular public school in wealthy districts. It seems unfair to compare individual charters to all public schools from throughout the state. A much more reasonable question is how close these charters come to the demographics of the districts they serve.

This viewpoint about being “open to all” in traditional public schools implies that in fact public schools serve all equally well. In fact, the research is overwhelming that students from lower income and lower educated parents do exceedingly worse in our public schools than the more well off. So if you change the focus from how to fairly allow all into a single school to how do we educate children from all backgrounds well, you would be much more critical of the existing public schools and perhaps more open to learning how charters may change this long repeated tendency for the less well off to be least well served by public schools.

Inevitably the favorite comment against charters is, “why not just work to change existing public schools?” The reason for this is that this has been tried extensively for decades, at huge expense of money, time and energy, with almost no discernable positive effect.  Again, extensive research (see Sarason’s The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform for a review of this) demonstrates that almost no large scale school reform has ever had a significant positive impact on learning. Einstein’s definition of Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Rather than focus on how charter schools might be critiqued, maybe it would be worth asking how existing schools expect to get any better results doing the same things over and over.

One final typical focus seems to be on costs and how charters “take money” from public schools that could be “helping all kids.” In fact, charters may well help save money for the district public schools. In addition to serving students for a cost usually at or below the existing school, as well as lowering significantly the rarely cited (but much more relevant) cost per graduate, charters can lessen the many hidden costs of comprehensive, “monopolistic” schools. By trying to serve everyone, traditional public schools spend loads on professional development on how to try the impossible task of succeeding with all learners, developing programs or special arrangements for all those who don’t fit the “one-size-fits-all” practices, and the draining time administrators, special educators, and counselors spend dealing with frustrated students and parents who feel the school is failing to work effectively with a child and have no other alternative publicly accessible so have to fight the system (often with huge legal expenses, in addition to requiring time and emotional energy) for better services for the child. If principals didn’t have to spend so much time trying to accommodate every student and parent complaint, maybe they could focus on their role as instructional leader as well as helping the school focus on a more well defined sense of purpose than trying to serve every possible community need. Charters and choice can be a relief valve for students or parents who are looking for something different for their child. Rather than costing the existing public schools, this can be a savings financially as well as a way to enhance support for public education by providing better educational options for every child.

It may help possibly to reframe terms. The debate may not be between public schools or private schools, which imply open versus selective (although individual public schools can be selective not only by district boundaries but by such criteria as magnet programs and conversely some private schools accept all who apply). What if the language was something like adult centered schools vs. student centered schools, inflexible schools vs. responsive schools, generic schools vs. focused schools, or bureaucratic schools vs. personal schools. All loaded terms perhaps, as are public and private. But these terms are ones worth exploring when looking at the differences between some existing public schools and other schools, public, charter, or private. These are the real issues in education when we ask the question how best to fairly provide every child with the chance for success in school.

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