Today’s New York Times delves into the divide within communities over charter schools. The NAACP is calling for a moratorium on charters because they are increasing not only the racial divide but also the economic divide. Charters in some cities, particularly cities with fewer charter schools as in Newark, Boston or Washington tend to do better than in cities with many charters, but as the number of charters increases, achievement decreases. The reasons become clear:
Charters are viewed by some parents as an ‘escape’ from schools that must serve children with discipline and other emotional problems. Charter educational programs may be no better than in traditional schools, but ‘problem’ students are either screened out or suspended. Suspension rates are higher in charters and disproportionately impact minority students. Achievement for those who remain may rise giving the appearance of being better.
The article refers to the economic conditions in large cities which make it difficult for large numbers of families to earn a living wage. This problem is compounded by socio-economic housing patterns that segregate families. In extreme poverty areas, public schools are likely to have less funding due to low property values, inexperienced teachers and high attrition rates, and student absenteeism and high mobility rates. Even in more mixed socio-economic areas, some parents may see charters as a way to escape into a mini world of like minded people in order to avoid diversity.
Running from problems caused by conditions beyond the schools’ control may, in the end, make problems worse. What happened in Pinellas County with its ‘failure factories’ is a case in point. Testing and accountability may force some districts to find ways to more directly deal with the societal problems they face. Magnet schools are one result. Community schools with comprehensive services are another. These are positive steps, but they are inadequate.
The reality is that providing schools in which all children have the chance to thrive is expensive and complicated. There seems to be an attitude, by even the well intentioned reformers, that a piece meal approach is all that can be done to improve learning. Philanthropists have zeroed in on charters in some areas instead of supporting improvement in public schools. Politicians have turned to vouchers for mostly small religious schools as another escape.
Many argue that local public schools are entrenched in the survival politics of established policies of teacher unions. Thus, real change cannot be effected. Communities like Newark who initially embraced policies controlled by private money, however, have since rebelled. Firing the teachers, closing schools, and ‘fixing the kids’ does not improve learning. Neither does sending children to poorly staffed private schools.
City and county commissions, planning departments, police and judicial systems and schools must have a community wide focus. Many are now asking about the impact of the placement of federal housing, new school and business locations, and neighborhood restoration projects on communities. Police and juvenile system policies toward types of neighborhoods and racial groups are under scrutiny.
We all know that avoiding problems can come back to haunt us in ways we might not expect. There may be times, of course, when ‘moving out of the mainstream’ is the best alternative for a particular child or situation. The balance between randomly generated alternative schools with uncertain quality and questionable financial motives with a ‘one size fits all’ school system must be found.