by R. L’Heureux Lewis
There is a quiet storm brewing in American schools. While the nation is keeping close watch on health care reform and the nation’s economies, the base of our school system, traditional public schools, are failing and may have a new competitor. When Bush was in office, the question of traditional public school vs. charter schools was hotly debated. Many suggested that charter schools should not be expanded because they undermined traditional public schools, didn’t protect their employees, and were not successful at educating students despite their promise. However, under the Obama administration, there is much less public debate and quietly charter schools are being advanced as a solution to the dilemmas of urban education. The quiet arrival of charters should be raising questions and debate, but it is not.
The No Child Left Behind Act signed in by George W. Bush in 2002 placed a great deal of weight on schools to equalize student test scores by 2014. Well, we’re 4 years from the deadline and we’re about as close to that goal as we are Jetsons flying cars. Recently, Barack Obama introduced his education reform blueprint, which takes aim at creating college and career ready students by 2020. The bill places a great deal of emphasis on teachers and school administrators to turn around sinking schools and offers consequences for the failure to do so.
No one wants a failing school and only a few know how to successfully turn around a failing school. On top of that, failing schools are often located next to other failing schools which makes a failing school district. Few know how to turn around a failing school, but nearly no one has shown us they know how to turn around a failing district. The issue is not just creating success in one school, but creating success in multiple schools!
In Obama’s Blueprint for education there are four options for turning around failing schools, one of which is a restart model. Under a restart model, a failing school is closed and re-opened under the management of a charter organization. At best, this would mean a failing traditional public school would be replaced by an effective charter school and students wouldn’t miss out on much opportunity. At worst, this means a failing traditional public school will be replaced by an ineffective charter school and students will continue to be locked out of opportunity.
There is a growing belief that charter schools and non-unionized teachers are better for producing the results we want amongst our children. This would be great, if it were true. The sad fact about charter schools is that their performance, on average, is no better than traditional public schools. While we are encouraged by the success of a few high performing charter schools, we must realize they are celebrated because they are the exception, not the rule. Most charter schools look like public schools: full of people working hard but not clear on how ensure a quality education for all students.
Increasingly, charter schools are being presented as the option for failing urban school districts, but there may not be enough good charter schools to go around. There is heavy pressure for Obama to lift the cap on the number of charters, but at the rate at which traditional public schools are closing in cities like Detroit who could possibly open enough schools that will serve our children well?
As we rush to open up cities to charters, we have to seriously ask: Are these better alternatives? Are there enough new schools to go around to deal with the closing of so many traditional public schools? What do we want the relationship between traditional public schools and charter schools to be like as they sit side-by-side? These questions will set the stage for the next 15 years of education, but too few of us are asking them.
The boat of American education has been sinking for a while and now there is a current that could serve to lift our hopes or further sink our ship with false promises. The reality is that American public schools are under-preparing our children for a global economy across the board. The schools that Black and poor children often attend in urban areas are not just under preparing but failing our children. The next few months and years will determine if charter schools mean a greater chance at success or are the next step in re-shuffling the same failed educational pieces for the Black youth of this country.
R. L’Heureux Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York – CUNY. His research concentrates on issues of educational inequality, the role of race in contemporary society, and mental health well-being.