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School Choice & Charters Opinion

Beyond Charter Schools: Thinking About Public Education’s Future

By Pedro A. Noguera — October 23, 2012 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I hope that you enjoyed your time in Belgium and returned with some interesting stories to share about the schools there. Although Belgium is not one of the countries typically cited as an example of educational innovation and success that we can learn from, I imagine that like other nations in Western Europe that have a strong social-welfare system, its education policies must be very different than ours. I also know that its economy has been contracting as a result of the global recession, even if conditions aren’t as bad as they are in Greece, Spain, and Portugal. Is the Belgian government cutting education, healthcare, and other social programs? It will be interesting to hear how schools are faring in the current economic climate.

In thinking about your last entry I’ve been taken by how frequently charter schools have come up in our exchanges so far when so few children in the United States are actually enrolled in them. Although there are a few places where charter schools now enroll a significant percentage of the students (Harlem and Albany, N.Y., are two places that come to mind), across the country less than 5 percent of all students are in charter schools, and several states don’t even allow charter schools to be created.

I just returned from Seattle where the issue of charter schools has become a highly polarized political issue as a result of state ballot Initiative 1240, which would allow 40 charter schools to be created. The state of Washington is one of the few that has not allowed charter schools, but the measure has financial backing from prominent, wealthy Democratic donors such as Nick Hanauer and Paul Brainerd, and recent polls suggest that it is likely to pass. As I listened to people argue both sides of the measure with great passion I found it interesting that it had garnered so much energy and attention. If approved, less than 1 percent of the children in Washington would be enrolled in charter schools. Meanwhile, close to 30 percent of children in Seattle are enrolled in private schools. Why do you think so little concern is expressed about the loss of these children? Is it because the children in private schools are from affluent families and there is no way that public schools can compete for these children? Is the real reason we’re spending so much time discussing and debating the merits of charter schools because if they continue to grow they will take poor and working-class children away from public schools?

I find it ironic and hypocritical that the opponents of charter schools don’t voice much objection to the loss of affluent children to private schools. Moreover, there are selective public schools that are limited to so-called gifted children (typically the most privileged) and concentrate the neediest children in under-resourced schools. Why do you think so little concern is expressed about the effect these schools have upon public education? Clearly, private schools and screen schools are exacerbating efforts to promote integration and equity in public schools, but I hear so little from the opponents of charters about these issues.

The so-called reformers are clear that they want to challenge the monopoly that public schools have over the education of poor children. They believe that by creating charter schools and expanding choice, public schools will be compelled to change because they will have to compete in order to retain students.

I think the charter advocates are wrong about the effect of competition. There is no evidence that charter schools are superior to traditional public schools, nor is there any evidence that the spread of charter schools has prompted public schools to improve. Instead, parents in cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia are being pitted against one another as they fight for space, while educators in charters and traditional public schools work in isolation from each other. We are spending so much time fighting over charter schools and so little time working to improve our public schools where the vast majority of children are still being educated.

I guess the charter school advocates are winning, and not because their vision of reform is prevailing. It seems clear that one of their goals was to stir debate over the direction of public education, and they are clearly succeeding at that. If you haven’t done so already, read Thomas Friedman’s column in this past Sunday’s New York Times. He cites the Obama administration’s education and automobile policies as major accomplishments of the administration. Like the so-called reformers, he thinks that Race for the Top is a lever that will result in widespread change.

Deborah, we’ve got to find a way to shift the focus of reform away from distractions like charter schools and on to issues like inequality, racial segregation, and the need to improve schools that have been struggling for years and to create schools where children are intellectually stimulated. As I travel throughout the country speaking with educators I am struck by the fact that so many of those I meet are frustrated by the direction of policy, but still committed to doing their best for the children they serve. We have to find a way to help them, and for us to do that, we will have to avoid being distracted by relatively minor issues and remain focused on the big picture: the future of education and American democracy.

Welcome home,

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