Public Education vs. Charter Schools: Are We Just Rearranging the Deck on the Titanic?

April 30, 2012  |  

Washington D.C., which in 2007 saw its board of education stripped of its decision-making powers, hired Michelle Rhee, a champion of the vouchers and charter school movements (seen both on “Oprah” and in the film, Waiting for Superman), to the job of chancellor and went to work dismantling that school district. In her first year, Rhee closed 23 schools, fired 36 principals and introduced a teacher evaluation, which resulted in the firing of 241 more teachers. Although she claimed that during her tenure, standardized test results had improved under her restructuring of the public school system, her achievements would be overshadowed by an erasure scandal, which alleged that D.C. schools had cheated to raise test scores during Rhee’s leadership.

Yet today’s charter school movement has some influential allies. This includes the American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC), a free-market, conservative policy group, which has been working for 20 years to privatize public education by helping states to draft legislation that increases school voucher systems (which help to drive public education dollars into private schools), loosen standards for teachers and administrators, and escape the requirements of collective bargaining agreements.  Support has also come from the other side of the political spectrum in the form of various black politicians and the Obama administration, whose current “Race To The Top” initiative awards federal education dollars to states based largely on how many public schools they disband and privatize.

Likewise, the long, slow decay of school districts across the country has left it with a precious few supporters. Even parents, who have longed worry about safety, poor graduation rates and dismal standardized test results in the public schools, see the charter schools as an alternative in a system, which offers little.  But how does transferring more and more children out of publicly accountable school districts and into charters and privately operated schools, which offer little in the way of accountability and have questionable track records of success, do much in the way of creating viable education environments for the children?

I think that is the key point that is missing in all the restructuring of schools. In Philadelphia and places like it, it seems that the biggest concern is the numbers – reducing cost and balancing budgets – not how these changes will help to improve curriculum, increase graduation rates and generally modernize the education experiences for children across the city. And as it stands right now, outside of taking the burden, charter schools have not been the saving grace of public education many parents have been led to believe. In some respects, they are more costly and worse academically. Yet with the amount of for-profit education management organizations angling for a chance at the contracts, the questionable abilities surrounding the charter school movement get muddled in the promise of something new, which in many folks minds, means better. When in fact, we might just be shifting our students from the old sinking ship onto a newer one, albeit with the same holes.

I am not of the general belief that charter schools are bad; there are some really good ones that have done excellent work across the country. But generally, the good ones are operated by folks who have long and proven backgrounds in education, not bureaucrats and definitely not for profit “education” organizations getting into the “business” of education. And unfortunately, massive dumps of public schools in the “free market” tend to attract as many bad managers as the good ones. We continue to tell the kids that there is no price on education and yet every day we find new ways to do just that.

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