A reader writes:
I've always been a fan of Diane Ravitch's. I worked in educational publishing for about 15 years and she has always had her finger on the pulse of what's wrong with American education. And while I do agree with her about vouchers, I couldn't disagree with her more about charter schools.
On paper, she's right -- there isn't a lot of evidence or research that charter schools are better than regular public schools. But I think something is getting lost in the analysis. Part of what makes charter schools interesting and valuable is that they allow "small school" settings that are publicly funded.
Charter schools are districts unto themselves and can be much more flexible and try out new things. As long as they meet state laws, they have a lot of freedom. Some new ideas don't work so well (and can be dropped, or the charter school can fail) and others ideas do work. The things that work can be replicated in other public schools (charter or not).
I am in the Houston area and there are two successful charter franchises that keep expanding -- KIPP and Harmony Schools. I think that charter schools serve the rest of public education in America as valuable "idea labs" that allow alternative models to thrive -- or fail. They also save lots of public funds -- here in Texas, charter schools receive $1,200 LESS per student than regular school districts do. These are some benefits of charter schools on a larger scale.
On a smaller, more personal scale, charter schools and their flexibility can be god-sent for a lot of families. My own kids go to a local charter school that is not part of any chain. Ironically, it is in one of the best public school districts in the state -- Katy ISD, a place people move to in order to get their kids into the schools. Katy ISD is a very good system overall, but it is quite large and bureaucratic, and very inflexible. It is a one-size-fits-all school setting.
And you know what? One size fits MOST, but it doesn't fit all. The charter school my kids go to attracts the kids at either end of the spectrum, and has a disproportionate number of highly gifted kids and kids with learning or social problems. Gifted kids really get nothing out of most public school systems. Our local ISD has rules that children can be advanced one grade only, and my daughter has a fall birthday. Our charter school was willing to try what would work for the child instead of what would work for the rules.
The result is a happy, well-adjusted kid who has been placed at her ability-level in her weakest subject and is accommodated upwards in her stronger areas. She competes at a state level in her strengths. And the school is small enough that there is no social ostracism for being "different." She is a 9-year-old 5th grader whose best friend this year is a 12-year-old 5th grader with cerebral palsy and a number of learning disabilities. Our charter school in a nutshell, and part of why it may never have top state test scores.
From Sara Mosle's review of Ravitch's new book:
In California, for example, less than 1 percent of students in failing schools actually sought a transfer. In Colorado, less than 2 percent did.
I've been a public-school teacher for 21 years, and I'll tell you why this is so. Moving a student from his or her neighborhood school requires action by and involvement of parents. It also often requires transportation of the student by parents, every day. There is a lot of paperwork. There are meetings at the new school and the old. There are transcripts to be picked up.
In many "failing" schools, it is a lack of parental involvement and an absence of parental belief in the importance of education that lead to students' low achievement. Most students who are not doing well, or even adequately, have parents who do not show up for conferences, or check homework, come to performances, or, often, even get their kids to school every day washed, fed and properly clothed.
To expect these parents to do the work necessary to find a charter school, get their student enrolled, and get their student to the school every day ready to learn, is pure folly. This is the downfall of every voluntary school choice program. The kids who are achieving are also the kids whose parents have the ability and inclination to find them a better school. All of these achievers leave, and the failing school fails farther, faster.