Charter schools. What are they? Is it just some buzz word you've heard associated with education? Charter schools are the wave of the future! Charter schools are magical havens where all is right with education! Charter schools will single handedly save education in America!
Except, not really. A charter school is a school that is exempt from rules, state/district regulations and sometimes the rules of the unions, that receives your tax dollars. In return for receiving these public funds (and any additional donations, just like other public schools), the school is meant to be held accountable to achieve the goals set forth in the school's "charter" or mission.
It sounds nice, right? I've only been in one charter school and it's... different. Kids chill out on couches while they sip coffee and call their teacher by her first name. They discuss literature or physics or drama or whatever the subject is meant to be. The classes are small. The children are wonderful. The teachers are laid back and completely relaxed.
It does sound perfect, doesn't it? No wonder the recent film, Waiting For Superman, attempts to show how truly wonderful they are. They sound fantastic, right? I mean, who wouldn't want their kid to be in this very relaxing, nurturing environment.
Let me tell you some truths about charter schools.
1. The students are placed by lottery, but that can often turn into the students being handpicked.
In the district where I work, there is a charter school called Brown School. Despite it's downtown/urban location, the school has students from all over the district. It takes two students from each zip code in the county. Think about your zip code for a second. You can have the two best and brightest students from that zip code in your school, and that's it. Unfortunately, your kid didn't get pick. However, if you can give the school something, you kid can go there! The basketball coach just has to coach there for a year so his kids can go there the following year.
Now, here's the part that gets me. Say Little Johnny was lucky enough to be chosen to attend Brown School. How exciting for Johnny! Except, Johnny has a problem. Johnny has Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Johnny gets in arguments with his teachers and doesn't get along with his peers. Johnny doesn't go to Brown School anymore. Johnny just got booted back to his home school. Only now? Now Johnny's been betrayed and hurt because he's been kicked out. Now Johnny's trust has been violated by those meant to protect him. Now Johnny is some other teacher's problem and he's not going to trust him at all from the minute he walks in the room.
Maybe you're saying "Good! I don't want kids like Johnny around my precious child!" Think about how you'd feel if you were Johnny's mom. Now think about how you'd feel if you were Johnny...
2. Unions are NOT out to ruin education.
Are there bad union representatives and members? Oh yeah, of course there are. Some of them are career politicians looking for a leg up. BUT, that doesn't mean that some of the rules put forth by unions don't benefit kids as much as teachers. Take the class cap for example! Unions negotiate in their district to establish what is considered a "too large" classroom. Yes, it benefits teachers. I have less children who I am legally responsible for. I have less papers to grade. I have less resources to buy and less stress on my mind. Students? They have a smaller student to teacher ratio. It's illegal, because of my union, for me to have over 31 kids. Moreover, my school goes out of it's way to even out your rosters. By the second week of school, the counselors attempt to even out all periods so that the student to teacher ratio is more even per classroom. Without the unions, I could have 35, 40, hell, 50 students in a single period.
3. Students in most charter schools do not fair any better than their peers in "regular" schools, and sometimes perform worse.
Despite handpicking students, the kids really don't do much better on standardized tests. Certainly not enough to warrant funneling much needed funds out of neighborhood schools and into a charter program. Some charter schools give students freaking iPads. I'm all for technology in the classroom, but those things are expensive! Let's assume they got the standard 25% discount that we get when we purchase books in a large quantity. That was 50 students who received their brand new iPad, which would have cost just over $18,000. If Apple didn't give them a discount, it's nearly $25,000. Seriously. Do you have any idea how many books I could buy with that? How many packs of paper and pencils for the kids whose parents can't or won't buy them? We could hire an entire part time teacher to reduce class sizes with those funds! But no. iPads for the charter school. And then the kids don't do that much better on tests.
And here is my real and honest problem with the idea of charter schools. They rob us. They rob the "normal" schools. They rob the "normal" teachers. They rob the "normal" students. My kids wouldn't be handpicked. They come to us battered and bruised. They come to use exhausted and overwhelmed. They come to use stressed out and betrayed. But they come to us and we take them. We take them when the charter schools won't. We take them when the charter schools remove them. We take them when everyone else, sometimes their own parents, have turned their backs on these children.
They give us children who have been failed again and again by society. By family. By the very district who expects them to pass after it has failed the students. The charter schools pick the children they want. The pick the Pollyannas and Bill Gateses and say "See! Our kids can succeed! Yours can too!" The public says "These charter schools are passing with their wonderful, cream of the crop students! Why aren't you!? Who can we blame!? THE TEACHERS!"
So now we're getting blamed. Surely it's the students, right? It can't be that Tommy was born to a fifteen year old girl who was a baby herself and couldn't take care of him. It can't be that Mary is facing generations of socio-economic hardships that make it impossible for her to ever set foot in a charter school. It can't be that the test itself could possibly be flawed.
No. It's the teachers. And the answer is to get rid of schools as we know them and institute charter schools. Only, we can't. There aren't enough funds or teachers for every school to become a charter school. There aren't enough parent advocates to create one in every neighborhood. There aren't enough completely perfect and wonderful students to be handpicked at every charter school across the nation. What should we do with the leftovers? Oh. I know! If we kick them out of school period, then we never have to worry about there scores at all. When they leave our school, they simply disappear, right? They walk out of the building and just evaporate into the pavement, right? No. They're still there. They still need help. You just have to see them.