The Charter School Dilemma

Over Thanksgiving break I had the opportunity to be a part of Colgate’s “Boston Non-Profit Immersion Trip” which basically meant that I visited a couple non-profits in Boston with a group of Colgate students and talked to the people who work there about their experiences and their organization. At night we had a reception with alumni who work in the Common Good/non-profit sector. (Colgate loves alumni receptions). Any day Colgate gives me free food and alcohol is a good day by me, but seeing the dedication and empathy that people who run non-profits have was inspiring and really made the trip worth it.

At the reception at an upscale hotel in Boston, the keynote speaker was an alum who is currently the Secretary of Education for Massachusetts. He discussed some of the major issues in education such as the achievement gaps between different races and classes. He also talked thoroughly about charter schools. Boston has an extensive network of public charter schools run by various organizations such as KIPP and Match, both of which employ recent Colgate graduates, that have been very successful. According to the speaker, students in Boston can apply to go to a certain high school, including the charters, or they can go to their local neighborhood school. The charters are purposely kept small and turn away at least as many students as are accepted through the admission lottery. Charter schools cannot grow significantly in size since that would defeat their goal of small classes and individual attention, and there are governmental limits on how many of the city’s schools can be charters. So what do we do for students who don’t get in to charter schools or didn’t know about them in the first place? Well, that’s exactly what I asked during the Q&A session. The speaker said we need to find ways to increase the number of charters as well as improve neighborhood schools. Fair enough, but what are the implications of expanding charters? Would a city completely comprised of charter schools be a worthwhile goal?

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Charter schools have been controversial, partially because they can take resources away from traditional public schools. Source: cable.com

There’s no doubt that many charter schools in Boston are doing great work and helping their students be successful. However, there are some potential negatives that can come with expanding charters too much. First, it can take our attention and resources too far away from the traditional public school, ignoring the needs of students who go to their local neighborhood school. Secondly, it can take public education out of the hands of the public. Many people, Diane Ravitch (2013) in particular, have written extensively about the privatization movement in education. While the schools in Boston may be public charter schools, they are run by organizations other than the local school district. These organizations, in many cases, do great work and have good intentions, but are, according to Ravitch, part of the “Hoax of the Privatization Movement.” Groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation donate to create schools and curriculums that fit their idea of what a good school should be. This could mean a school focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) to train students for today’s high-tech careers. This sounds great, but is intertwined with the “hidden curriculum” and functionalism, which I wrote about in previous posts. The charter schools in Boston have not necessarily followed this path, but pushing for more charters only moves schools further away from the public sector. Public schools can improve without a charter. Steps need to be taken to embrace what many charter schools in Boston are doing right – namely small classes, individual attention,  sufficient resources, dedicated teachers, and non-academic services for students and families.

On the surface, charter schools really look promising, and this is where the charter school conversation personally gets complicated for me. I want to wholeheartedly embrace Ravitch’s anti-privatization argument and say I won’t teach at a charter school. However, I look at some of the charter schools I am familiar with (from meeting students who attend them and Colgate alums who work there) and I am really impressed with the work they do, and can really see myself being a part of it. I have definitely been conflicted with this issue, but a 2012 alumna who is a teacher at one of Boston’s charter schools recently helped me understand this dilemma when I talked to her at a Colgate networking event. She said she is very aware of the controversy surrounding charter schools, but she loves her job because she likes the community outreach her school does and she can see herself making a difference in her students’ lives. She said that this is not true of every charter school, but it is at her’s. This really helped me put my own position as a future teacher because I see myself, first and foremost, as a difference-maker at the individual level of my students. I absolutely want to address the larger issues in education, but, most importantly for me, I want to feel that I am supporting my students, helping them succeed and helping them believe in their own abilities. I would not work in a school that I see as promoting privatization an being profit-driven, but, given the correct circumstances, I probably would not be against teaching at a public charter school. Well, I’m pretty sure…

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2 thoughts on “The Charter School Dilemma

  1. Charter Schools — Good or Evil … or should we judge school by school. This is the debate that we have throughout educational studies themes — the individual vs. the institution. We continue to look at the institution of schools and see how these “individual” schools are a part of the undermining of the institution of schools even though they appear to be doing the good deeds. That’s the dilemma. How then can we “fix” our broken schools?

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    • This is the dilemma I’ve been having because I see the positive things that some individual schools are doing. However, I see the positives as associated with having dedicated teachers, sufficient resources, and services outside of school hours, rather than the “charter” label. Giving a school the charter label in our education system provides the funding and ability to provide these services, but there’s no reason why we can’t start extracting the positives of some charter schools to improve our traditional public schools. I don’t think more charters is the answer, and there is the concern of privatization, but the success of some charters in high-needs environments shows that our “broken” schools can be “fixed” – high-needs students can be well-serviced by their schools. A positive, supportive school environment should not be reserved for a minority of students who are chosen via lottery. Overall, the charter label is not the answer; it’s what happens within the most successful charter schools.

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