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Charter schools

Posted By: Doug Monroe · 8/12/2011 10:00:00 AM
One of the most important questions parents ask in deciding what schools their children should attend is: Will my child be safe? My daughter attended a public middle school in Atlanta and had a wonderful experience—except for the fact that she was hurt twice by boys. One hit her in the ear with a snowball so hard that the snow impacted inside her ear. Another choked her until a teacher pulled him off of her. I went to the school and met with the principal, but as far as I know the boys were never punished.

For high school, I decided to send her to a private school. Not just for safety, although that was at the top of the list, but for the best education possible. I wasn’t the only one. Among the parents at the school I chose were then-mayor Bill Campbell and then-congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. President Obama sends his girls to a private school in Washington.

You cannot blame parents for wanting to send their kids to the best school possible, even when they can’t afford prep school tuition of $20,000 a year or more. That’s why charter schools have such growing appeal. They’re public schools funded mostly by the government but run by private organizations. Some make a profit for their operators. Interest in them exploded after the release of the documentary Waiting for Superman. Two other documentaries, The Cartel and The Lottery, also extol the promise of charter schools.

At dinner the other night, a friend said she thought charter schools were the only good option for students these days. I responded by saying some charter schools might be a wonderful option, but other charter schools are as bad as or worse than public schools. The thing is that all charter schools get good PR. For example, WSB Consumer Advocate Clark Howard loves them.

Not everyone loves them. Dianne Ravitch, a former deputy secretary of education during the first Bush presidency, once led the charge in favor of high-stakes testing and “school choice.” Now, she is outspoken in her opposition. She says the three recent documentaries about charter schools buy into the myth that many of America’s gnawing problems can be blamed on public teachers and their unions—“not globalization or deindustrialization or poverty or our coarse popular culture or predatory financial practices.” Just teachers.

Ravitch says: “Some fact-checking is in order, and the place to start is with [Waiting for Superman]’s quiet acknowledgment that only one in five charter schools is able to get the ‘amazing results’ that it celebrates. Nothing more is said about this astonishing statistic.” That statistic comes from a national study of charter schools by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond. It evaluated student progress on math tests in half the nation’s 5,000 charter schools and concluded that:
-17 percent were superior to a matched traditional public school
-37 percent were worse than the public school
-The remaining 46 percent had academic gains no different from that of a similar public school

One of the more disturbing aspects of charter schools is that they are creating a new form of segregation. They can exclude children with disabilities and those classified as “English Language Learners.” These are the kids who drag down scores. In case of behavioral disabilities, they can disrupt classes. Public schools accept them and work with them. Charter schools can run them off.

The New York Times provided a good example of what can happen in a charter school in a recent story about a high profile school run by a former New York City councilwoman, Eva Moskowitz. A boy with attention deficit problems was suspended and disciplined to the point that his mother complained. Moskowitz responded:

“[I]t is extremely important that children feel successful and a nine-hour day with more than 23 children (and that’s our small class size!) where they are constantly being asked to focus and concentrate can overwhelm children and be a bad environment.”

After the boy started throwing up every morning before school, his mother transferred him to a public school, where he began to thrive.

At a time when public schools are under attack from all quarters and Atlanta’s schools are mired in a mind-boggling cheating scandal, it is only natural for parents to look at charter schools as a godsend. But it is important to acknowledge that not all the people opening charter schools know what they are doing or have good motives. This is one of the few growth areas left in our economy and charter schools are not necessarily run by the pure at heart. Buyer beware.

Doug Monroe was a senior editor, columnist, and blogger for Atlanta magazine. He moved to Brooklyn in 2007 as a New York City Teaching Fellow and earned a master's degree in education from Long Island University.
 
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