Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Meeting Charter Schools in the Middle

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Meeting Charter Schools in the Middle

Article excerpt

At the policy level, it's important to kkeep debating the pros and cons of charter schools. But on the ground, system leaders must come to terms with them.

Every summer, PDK hosts a national conference for members of Educators Rising, our Career and Technical Student Organization for young people interested in becoming teachers. This year, more than a thousand high school students and their faculty advisors joined us in Dallas, Texas, for four days of workshops, discussions, networking, and competitions in categories such as curriculum design, lesson planning, and public speaking.

I was particularly impressed by the winner of the public speaking contest, Sruti Rathapaum, who gave an impassioned speech calling for greater equity in K-12 education. She touched on a wide range of issues--including a detailed examination of school funding disparities--and she was a powerful and engaging speaker. But what stood out most for me was her story of growing up as an immigrant child on the poor side of Austin, Texas, and choosing to leave the regular public school system to attend a charter school.

Of course, the story left me feeling conflicted. On one hand, here's a brilliant young woman who is already an inspiring leader and shows exceptional promise as a future educator. On the other hand, she credits much of her success to having fled her local school system.

Now, it's possible that Sruti would have thrived wherever she went, given her drive, intelligence, and character. But still, the fact is that she and her mother believed the neighborhood schools to be inadequate. They didn't want to take the chance on them, so they opted to go elsewhere.

I'm glad they had that choice. Like most Americans, I staunchly oppose vouchers and tax credit schemes meant to funnel public dollars into private schooling. But I accept that charters have become an integral part of the public school landscape, and frankly, I think some of their practices are worthy of emulation.

Sure, I have misgivings about them. For one thing, I've spent my entire career trying to improve traditional school systems, and when families leave them for the charter sector, I take it personally. For another thing, I resent how much of the oxygen charter schools suck out of the public discourse--while they enroll fewer than 10% of the nation's students, they seem to get more like 90% of the attention from education journalists and policy makers. Further, many reformers (and their funders) have oversold their promise, treating them as a panacea for all that ails the public schools. Meanwhile, critics have raised serious questions about their effects on local school finances and facilities management and about their commitment to serving English learners and students with disabilities. Moreover, the research remains unclear as to how well they stack up, overall, against traditional public schools.

Yet, many individual charters do seem to provide excellent opportunities for underserved children. Many are led and staffed by dedicated educators who work their tails off for students and families. Many charters are innovative and creative and are leading the way at preparing students academically and tending to their social and emotional needs.

Herein lies the rub: It feels like today's education debates force you to take a position either for charter schools or against them. Can't I just declare that I'm for good schools and against bad ones, whatever their governance model? Isn't that the distinction that really matters?

Beyond the charter wars

Whenever I hear a speaker heap praise on a charter school, part of me feels compelled to defend the traditional public school system at all costs, standing up for it against its detractors. I have great respect for the role public education has played, over many decades, in promoting social cohesion, economic mobility, and democratic citizenship, and I'm wary of those who would dismiss and undermine those accomplishments. …

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