Some Thoughts on Charter Schools

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As this is National Charter School week, I think it is only fitting for one of my first post to address the issue of charter schools. The idea that charter schools are either democratic or provide accountability is a sham on every front. The idea that market forces are good for education is fundamentally flawed. Market forces are often good for markets, but not necessarily consumers. For-profit and privately managed charter schools are the fast food of American education. They seem cheap, easy, quick, and provide an immediate solution to an immediate need. However, in the long term, they do more harm than good. How is it that parents can be trusted to be informed enough to “vote with their feet” (by leaving their current public school for a “better” option) but not trusted to be active participants in a democratic public school? Traditional public schools cannot make the necessary changes to compete with these “market forces” due to regulations and funding issues that are out of their control.

I work in a magnet school. Magnets occupy a frustrating no-man’s land in the school choice debate; we are conveniently both part of the problem and part of the solution (more on that in a future post). Some in the magnet world have chosen to align themselves with other forms of choice and the corporate reform movement, something that many of us are very disappointed and frustrated by. As the magnet coordinator at my school, for three years I have worked directly with families who are engaged in the process of school choice.

In my community, folks have a large number of choices in both district magnets and charter schools. Many parents I talk to are very uninformed. They have no idea what a charter school is or what the difference is between charter, magnet, and district schools. When a local charter school closed, I fielded a lot of calls from parents who were incredulous that the local school district allowed the school to close and wasn’t assisting them in placing their child in another school. They truly had no idea that the local school district had no say in the operation of area charter schools. If we are to believe that parents can and should “vote with their feet,” then lawmakers also have responsibility to provide full disclosure and enforce truth in advertising for charter schools.

The idea that market forces improve schools doesn’t hold up when we look at the factors that influence school choice decisions by parents. Data I have gathered from surveys of those applying to our magnet school show that only 30% identify “dissatisfaction with districted public school” as a factor in their decision to apply to our school. What I see in my interaction with parents is that school choice decisions by parents are driven far less by academics than policy makers imagine. There is also a lot of scholarly research on this front as well, despite the fact that school choice advocates seem to completely ignore it (here, here, here, here, and here).

I watched with great interest as the debate over school choice hit my childhood home of Haywood County, NC. The district is closing a beloved and successful elementary school and many believe that a lot of the blame can be placed on the opening of the first charter school in the district, Shining Rock Classical Academy. (Here is an excellent analysis). It was very interesting to see folks in my hometown suddenly getting worked up over an issue that urban areas of the state have struggled with for years. Most had no awareness of the policies regarding charter schools that our lawmakers had enacted.

The question is why did Haywood County need a charter school? This rural district is ranked the 15th best out of 115 in the state with one school that is in the top 1% of schools in the country. So what is driving the creation of Shining Rock Classical Academy and what would drive parents to choose it in such an environment? In discussing with community connections and browsing social media, the phrase “hands on learning” and “small class sizes” are often used. However, the district school that will be closed was an A+ arts integration school with plenty of hands on activities. Families anywhere in the district could attend the school through the district magnet program. None of the districts schools are over capacity so class sizes are certainly not unreasonable.

Many parents have expressed that they chose the charter school because they wanted to “get away from” Common Core. Interestingly enough, in NC, charter schools students still have to take EOG and EOC tests that are aligned with Common Core. As such, the idea that they have avoided Common Core by attending the charter school is misleading at best. Digging deeper, there also seems to be a lot of unspoken classism in the parents’ decisions (one parent is quoted as not wanting their children in the same school as those “country kids”). Market forces do not necessarily lead to positive changes. In the world of education “market forces” can simply mean “I don’t want my child in a school with those children.”

In my experience, school climate and culture are the primary drivers of school choice for parents. Despite all the debate in the world of education policy on whether or not class size matters, parents certainly seem to think it does. I get more questions from prospective parents about class size than I do about test schools. Rightly or wrongly, many parents see “small class size” as a code for more individualized attention for their child, greater catering to the needs of the child and family, and more positive peer relationships.

Parents want a school where their child will fit in. They want a school where their child won’t be bullied. They want a school where their child will be around positive peer influences. They want a school where teachers will be caring and kind to their child. Of course, for some parents, all of that is cultural code for less diverse and higher socioeconomic school but that is not true in all cases. However, the reform movement virtually ignores the issue of school climate and culture for a cult-like focus on narrowly defined and measured academic goals. The unintended consequence of school reform through accountability pressures is that schools have less time, energy, manpower, and resources to devote to addressing school climate and culture. I am glad to see some attention focusing on the issue recently, although I am wary of the future implications in the current policy climate of “it only matters if we can test it.”

The idea that charter schools should be “incubators for innovation” and somehow “partners” with traditional public schools is also a myth. This is an idea predicated by the thought that there is such a thing as some radical, earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting approach to education that is waiting to be discovered. Sorry folks, but it just doesn’t work like that (if it did, then education research would be far less boring to read). Humans have been educating smaller humans for millennia. The American public education system has faced the same debates and pressures for over 100 years. The truth is that we already know exactly how to make schools that are successful. We also know that educational practice is very context driven. What works in one context does not work in others. The problem is not that educators don’t know how to do it, it is that we struggle to overcome the structural and cultural barriers constantly at work the preventing schools from functioning the way we know they should.

This is my strongest indictment of the education reform movement; it is doing absolutely nothing to change the actual deep, long-standing obstacles to creating the most successful learning environments. Charter schools are nothing but a surface change. There are so many approaches to education that work and so many areas of study that have value, there is room within our public schools to provide programming options that may be a better fit or of greater interest to the student. However, the school choice movement as it stands now, with corporate and for profit charter schools, is simply a sham and a part of the larger effort to privatize and profit off of tax dollars meant to support all students.

 

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One thought on “Some Thoughts on Charter Schools

  1. Completely with you on your point about “cultural code” – parents are counseled out of charter schools all the time due to a lack of “fit”, yet because of the (charter school’s) lack of due process, often find they have nowhere to go for a satisfying resolution. Thank you for synthesizing multiple perspectives in this reflection.

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