Will Charter Schools be the Answer After November?

A number of US states, including Washington and Georgia, will have charter schools on their ballots this November. And while the public education debate is taking a back seat to the ideological struggle dominating the Presidential election, the quality of our schools is at least as important as the occupant of the White House. Are charter schools the way of the future, or is a student better off with in a public classroom with a private tutor? Will supporting charter schools send the system of public education into a nosedive?

Maureen Downey, a Georgia writer who focuses on issues relating to education, posted an insightful piece by an educator on her blog today. In that piece the educator, Jim Arnold, argues pointedly that supporting charter schools will only serve to take more of the children of higher-income families out of public school, leaving the public school environment to be defined by the poverty of the remaining students.

He also argues that the sentiment that our public school system is failing the students isn’t new. He cites important publications in 1996, 1983, 1976, 1969, 1963, 1959, 1955, 1942, 1940, and 1889. The piece in 1889 revealed that 84% of American colleges had to offer remedial courses in core subjects – and that was a time when only the top 3% of American high school students went on to college.

The problem, he argues, isn’t that public education is failing. It’s that elected officials have something to gain by maintaining the supposed disaster of public education as a persistent and pesky problem that needs to be fixed. This creates a perennial focus on the negative aspects of public education, without a corollary appreciation of the massive social good that is done by our nation’s educators.

That constant maligning has created a climate in which the morale of educators is at an all-time low. What was considered a noble and challenging profession only twenty years ago has somehow become a villain and a social pariah. Parents are becoming increasingly vocal – and cruel – in their criticism of teachers, and lawsuits are becoming more common.

But these problems aren’t likely to be solved by shifting public funding away from public schools and over to charter schools. As Downey notes: part of the problem is that “people want schools to solve varied problems.” Some want schools to do a better job of moral instruction; others want them to do a better job of sex ed. Some decry students’ scientific knowledge; others want them to abandon science in favor of Biblical teaching. That creates constant strain, and it makes the school everybody’s antagonist at one time or another.

But public schools remain a viable source of quality education. They are also diverse social environments in which students learn how to deal with the human variety they will encounter in a larger society. Numerous studies indicate that combining a public education with a private tutor in challenging subjects provides a better and more rounded education than attending a private school. Perhaps the answer is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but to do the work necessary to improve the quality of the water.