Charter schools have become the flavor of the day for education reformers, and they clearly have some virtues. Unlike voucher programs that divert public school resources to private and parochial schools, charters are public schools, although operating under more flexible guidelines than their more traditional counterparts.
Philosophically, I have no quarrel with charter schools. (I have big problems with vouchers.) But I do have real issues with the very American tendency to prescribe one-size-fits-all solutions to complicated problems, and too many people have decided that charters are that quick and easy solution.
Charters were initially designed to be experimental–to try new approaches, to innovate in the classroom–and to offer parents a wider array of choices of educational philosophy. So far, so good. But as charters have proliferated without much in the way of accountability or evaluation, some of the reasons we need to tread with caution have emerged. When Indianapolis’ Project School was closed for failure to perform, for example, parents who had chosen the school and were invested in its approach were furious and their children were uprooted. Ball State University, which had chartered some 20 schools, abruptly closed seven of them, with equally disruptive results.
And then there’s this…
While public schools must provide due process to students when making decisions about suspensions or expulsions, most states exempt charter schools from school district discipline policies. This lack of protection may have enabled some charter schools to suspend and expel students at much higher rates than their public counterparts. In San Diego, Green and his coauthors report, the city’s 37 charter schools have a suspension rate twice that of the public schools, while in Newark, the suspension rate in charter schools is 10 percent, compared to 3 percent for the city’s public schools….
It’s not just discipline, though; charter schools may be exempt from constitutional protections in areas like search and seizure and the exercise of religion. It’s obviously one thing for a Catholic school to require religion classes, but does the same logic apply to a charter school like Arizona’s Heritage Academy, which last month was criticized by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State for requiring 12th graders to read books claiming that God inspired the drafting of the Constitution.
So often, it isn’t what we choose to do. It’s how we choose to do it.
Charter schools–properly conceived, prudently financed and carefully monitored–can be part of the solution to our education woes. But they are not–and cannot be– a substitute for the hard work of fixing our public school systems.