Is a Private Model of Public Education Worth Pursuing?

I believe that although charter schools have some valuable ideas, they are not the right way to go about reforming our education system.

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The private model of education involves allowing success and failure.  If a traditional public school fails, it it will be called a “program improvement” school, and given additional support so that it can overcome the areas where it falls short.  Charter schools are different in that, while they consume funding from the same source as traditional public schools, their failure is not treated the same way.  If they fail, a new charter will vie for its funding and location, and take over the “business” of education.  This new school will have, perhaps, a different model or way of doing things that may be more successful, or it may put a different emphasis on a subject (e.g. become a school for science and math).  Some people love this idea, and I’ll grant you, it does have some value.

The true value in charter schools is that traditional public schools can learn from them, see where they succeed and where they fail, and choose to follow accordingly.  There can be several of these “experiments” going on simultaneously, and it may seem like a great way to explore new possibilities in the education system.  These charters are given less oversight, which allows the teachers to focus more on actually teaching than prepping their students for assessment after assessment.  Some teachers really like this, despite the lower pay scale they receive compared to traditional public schools.

I feel like the downsides, however, outweigh the gains.  Firstly, according to a CREDO-Stanford study, charter schools don’t really do any better at educating students in English or math than do traditional public schools.  The study, in fact, says that some more affluent children do worse, while some less well off children do better (but not by much).  The fact that charter schools can kick out children easier than traditional public schools, however, throws shade onto the fact that some poorer students do better, because what it really means is that the poor students who still remain tend to do better.  This is pretty easy to do when you kick out all the poor kids with discipline problems or learning disabilities, but those are also the students who need the most help.

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And what if a charter school does have a successful model?  Competitive parents who want the best for their children will want to take them from traditional public schools and put them in the hot, new charter in the area.  These students on average do well wherever they are, but when they aren’t in traditional public schools, the testing average of that school goes down, it develops a stigma of being a “bad school,” and even more affluent families will tend to avoid it.  The same thing goes for teachers who don’t want to work at a bad school full of students who couldn’t cut it at the local charter.  What happens here is polarization, where charter schools can be treated like one end of a magnet that draws all the “good” (read affluent)  kids in (rejecting or spitting out the “bad” (poor) ones), while the other side of the magnet is the traditional public school, that is forced to take the remainder.  This not only diminishes the quality of traditional public schools, while simultaneously lowering their funding, it perpetuates a class based system where the affluent families get the “good” schools and the poor families get the “bad” ones.  This is the exact opposite of the purpose of public education, which is supposed to be “the great equalizer.”

Although charter schools have their merits in advancing innovative educational practices at a more rapid pace, the costs are high, the benefits are low, and it simply isn’t worth sacrificing an egalitarian institution upon the altar of competition.

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