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The Charter School Debate – edu|FOCUS
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The Charter School Debate

Charter schools were in their infancy during the bulk of my grade school career, so I basically only had the choice of public or private (there weren’t any magnet schools in the nearby area) when it came to my education.  My parents chose to keep my siblings and me in public school, even though the school district as a whole was/is not the best.  My elementary and middle schools were fantastic, mainly because they were located in the most suburban parts of the district (as opposed to the borough), and were the smallest, enrollment-wise, out of all the other elementary and middle schools.  There was only one high school, however, where all the students of the area – upper-middle, middle, and lower-class, came together and drove statistics crazy from all the variation.  That being said, I think the education I received was quality enough to get me to the next stage of my life in college.

I was considered a “smart” kid, so I went to a proportionately challenging university that happened to be a private school.  But there were other students in my classes who went to public and state schools and were just as, if not more, challenged by their curriculum.  So if we’re measuring outcomes, I have friends who graduated from both private and public universities who vary in their job satisfaction/success rates, therefore making the whole private versus public institution debate a bit meaningless in my circle.  Not to mention the fact that there were kids who weren’t great students who didn’t go to college and went straight into working, or went the trade route, and consider themselves successful/satisfied with their life choices as well.

So going back to grade school, I also know of people who went to private schools in the area that received an education that wasn’t so different from my own public one, in that their test scores and overall education levels weren’t outrageously better or worse than our results.  But that’s in the suburbs.  There are many schools in the nearby Philadelphia area that were/are much worse financially, statistically, and morally, where students aren’t so fortunate to have a stable environment conducive to learning.  And the sad fact is most of those schools are public, located in the poorest parts of the city, and populated by minorities.  So naturally, parents who cared would have wanted to send their children to a well-funded private school if they had the financial resources and availability of such institutions nearby.

That leads us to the present day, where charter schools are gaining popularity with families who want that private school experience for their children, but are “stuck” in a place where their only option is an under-performing public school.  I completely understand the appeal of charter schools, and agree that they sound like a good idea in theory (and sometimes in practice, too).  But like most business dealings and investments, the more money and effort put in, the better the results that come out, and education is unfortunately another business deal in this country.

The problem with the charter school advocate movement is in the illusion of choice; people constantly play up the “choice” that parents can make when it comes to their child’s education.  You can choose to stay in the public school district you live in, or you can choose to pay tuition to go to a private school, and now you can choose to send your kid to a public funded but privately run charter school.  When stated like this, it makes it seem like the charter school is the best option (given that you live in a disadvantaged district with little funds), but nowhere does it say that the charter school in question is quality enough.  I’m not saying that all charters in poor locations are low quality, nor am I saying that all poorer-located public school districts are automatically terrible.  I am saying that the outcome of which kind of education your child receives depends on the overall environment and motivation techniques used by teachers and parents alike.  The smartest kid in class might not be motivated enough to apply himself in school regardless of where he goes, and the kid from the impoverished, broken home might be the next Pulitzer prize-winning scientist if she had the resources and access to lab equipment.  We need to rely on the efforts of the community to help our kids succeed, not just what kind of school they’re enrolled in.

I personally have no qualms against the idea of charter schools as a whole, since providing a place for students to have a better chance is always a good idea.  But based on my experience in the public school system, I’m definitely a public school advocate when it comes to education, because in the end it doesn’t matter where you go, but what you do there that makes the biggest difference.   If your public school doesn’t have enough money for textbooks, become active in fundraising or community book-sharing rather than just sitting back and blaming the system.  If there aren’t enough after-school clubs to keep your child busy and “well-rounded,” find other places in the community that cater to his/her interests, or start a club yourself.  It’s activism that gets results.

Successful activism, however, lends itself to the biggest problem with the whole public vs. charter debate, money.  Since tax-payer dollars are going to both places, of course there is going to be a strain on finances in one or the other eventually, especially if the neighborhood is low-income to begin with.  So the constant opening of new charter schools in the area taking money away from low-performing public schools that could have used it is a big deal.  And since not every district can get enough interest in fundraising or support for public schools, they end up worse off since the charter schools are usually started by a group with a specific agenda, and also, usually, have investors who want to see it come to fruition.

So while it is true charter schools make competition for public schools in the financial sense, every type of school is essentially the same when it comes to its agenda – educating the future (I hope, as there have been stories of tax fraud and embezzlement when it comes to education funds, but that’s a story for another day).  So the focus shouldn’t be on which type of education is better, but how we can make sure that the end-game is the same.  Education shouldn’t be a competition for who has the best resources, or best teachers, or highest test scores, since every school should have that status by default.  And it’s only with proper community support for education as a whole that we can make sure every school has a fighting chance to become something great.  Once we stop treating education like a business for profit, then we can start making strides in the right direction.


What do you think?  Are charter schools good or bad or somewhere in between?  Do your kids go to a charter?  Do you teach at a charter school?  I’d love to hear first-hand experiences.

Tracey Woodard
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