Charter Schools: Proceed With Caution

By Jessie Maxwell  

“Guess what? I won the lottery!” My nine-year-old nephew grinned from ear-to-ear as he told me the news. You see, my nephew’s name was drawn in a local charter school admissions lottery this past spring. He had “won” the chance to go to a safer, more academically rigorous school.

In this instance, the charter school option was a welcome surprise. It offered more rigorous academics, orderly classrooms, ample time for music, art, dance, and other often-overlooked (or cut) courses. Even better, now that my nephew was in, his younger brother will automatically be admitted when he starts Kindergarten. As a former public school teacher studying education policy, I know my nephew is very lucky. I also know that attending a charter school that really is better than regular public schools is very unusual. While I was excited for my nephew, I couldn’t help but feel renewed disappointment in the direction of our public education is headed.

Is it fair that you have to be lucky (or able to gather information about school alternatives, read and fill out the forms, and provide transportation in the mornings and afternoons for your child to get to and from school) to have access to a good education? Alternatively, how many charter schools actually provide this golden standard of education, anyway? The more I thought about it, the more I came to conclude that charter schools put up a good front, but they’re not our educational saving grace. My nephew may have won the lottery, but his story is by no means the norm.

The idea of charter schools is so appealing: Less bureaucracy, room for innovation, curriculum flexibility, and parents’ ability to choose what school they want their child to attend. Even government likes the idea. Recent bipartisan legislation aims to amend the No Child Left Behind Act to create additional funding and encourage more charter schools to open. Great, right? Maybe not.

When we push these shiny new promises to the side, we uncover an ugly underbelly of the charter school movement: large class sizes, limited diversity, less accountability, for-profit corporate ownership, and hidden financial barriers such as transportation and the cost of lunch. In addition, many studies have concluded that very few charter schools (only 17%) perform significantly better than their traditional public school counterparts. 46% perform just the same and 37% perform worse. Despite this data, Congress hopes to increase the number of charter schools across the country. The House of Representatives passed the Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act in 2011. This piece of legislation increases funding for and incentivizes the development of new charter schools.

Charter schools have somehow garnered overwhelming public support. Many assume that charter schools are better than traditional public schools. If we are going to move forward and promote a charter school growth spurt, we need to make sure that we are not reinforcing the same educational issues under a different name. We need to be more aware of Congressional actions with regards to public education. We must demand that every charter school meets strict and specific quality criteria. States must be provided with the tools and resources to evaluate and monitor charter school quality and progress. Furthermore, we must continue to support traditional public school reform.

We cannot be satisfied with the idea that a child has to be lucky to get a shot at a good education. The charter school movement does not and fundamentally cannot address the primary issue: equal access to exemplary education. Maybe you can win the lottery, but is it right to willingly leave education up to chance?

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