By Joan Richardson
Whenever I visit a school, one question always guides me: Would I want my own child in this school? If it’s good enough for my children, then it’s a good school; if not, then it’s a bad school. Plain and simple.
I’ve always applied my test in equal measure whether the school is a traditional public school, a charter school, a parochial school, a private school, or even a home school. The standard should be the same, regardless of the structure of the school or who’s paying the bills.
And that’s part of why the charter debate is so difficult for me.
Every child should have high-quality teaching every hour of every day. Ensuring that every child has an excellent education is good for this country, which is why we should use public dollars to pay for education.
I truly do believe that thousands and thousands of children in the United States are getting a better education today because they are enrolled in charter schools. That should be enough to make me happy, right?
But it’s not.
In spite of the benefit to individual students, I still wonder whether charter schools are ultimately good for the country.
I especially worry that charter schools are another factor that’s destroying American neighborhoods, especially in our cities. Whether intentional or not, charters send a message that families can’t expect a good education in their own neighborhood, especially if that neighborhood is urban. Charters have overwhelmingly been allowed, even encouraged, to operate as magnet schools that draw children away from neighborhood schools and into often-unfamiliar and relatively distant locales. Those students have no connection to these communities except the school building. They don’t walk to school under the watchful eye of a nosy neighbor. They don’t attend the same school as neighbor children. Their parents can’t easily travel to their school or commiserate with other parents at the local grocery store or church. When parents feel compelled to send their children out of their neighborhood, that damages the glue that holds communities together.
I would be fine if charter school operators came into and took over existing public schools that weren’t delivering on the high quality that we want for children. To level this playing field, charter operators would need the same money and the same community as other schools.
Charter schools damage us in another way, too. The continuation of charter schools is an admission that we have abandoned all expectation that local elected officials have the capacity or the will to ensure that the traditional public system will deliver quality. Rather than do the hard and thankless work of holding local school boards and educators accountable for delivering a quality education, politicians instead opened the escape hatch. They reduced the pressure on the existing system rather than make the system work. They would have us see that as entrepreneurial; I’m afraid I see that as cowardly and ineffective.
So, I’m left in a quandary. Can I accept a dual system that benefits a few students now but ultimately damages the entire system of education? Am I willing to pay to manage two separate public education systems? When will we decide that one option works better than the other? How long will it be before the new charter schools discover that they would have greater economies of scale by joining forces and effectively becoming a new public school district? (Won’t that be ironic!)
I want every child to have a quality education because that’s good for all of us. But, after two decades of experimenting with charter schools, I’m still not convinced that charter schools are delivering enough quality to justify trashing an entire system of public education that has long served this country well.