Charter Schools Do Not Address the Real Issue

By By Kathleen Gurr

By Kathleen Gurr

Last Thursday, Governor Mike Leavitt visited Timpanogos Academy, one of 13 charter schools in Utah, excited to congratulate parents, teachers and students on a successful first year. Long a supporter of charter schools, Governor Leavitt touted their apparent benefits, including smaller class sizes, greater teacher accountability and more meaningful parental involvement. It’s no secret that many of our public schools are in a time of crisis. So what do charter schools have that regular old public schools don’t?

The tune sung by most charter school supporters is about two things: size and accountability. Charter schools generally hold between 200 and 400 students, much smaller than the average Utah public school. Supporters claim that accountability is more feasible because charter schools operate independently from local school boards-with the so-called red tape and bureaucracy absent, parents have more clout in the classroom and can hold educators more responsible for providing clear results.

Although charter schools are funded by taxpayers and required to follow state core curriculum, they don’t have to abide by the rules of local school boards. All the funds, none of the rules: That sounds like the opposite of accountability to me.

Of course, smaller schools are better. There are shorter channels of communication, change occurs more quickly and more easily and students and teachers receive more attention. We can’t hold public schools responsible for their size when charter schools can limit enrollment.

In fact, many charter schools pride themselves on the size of their waiting lists. Public schools, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of turning people away. They have to teach everybody who shows up, and they have to adapt to the growth of their community and ever-tightening budget restrictions. It sounds simple but it’s true: Public schools could be smaller and more effective if we just had more of them. And Utah could build and maintain more (and better) public schools with more adequate funding-instead of draining public funds to sponsor charter schools.

Charter schools are presented as an alternative to low-performing public schools. Supporters make it sound like a utopia of small student-teacher ratios, reasonable standards and countless involved parents nodding in blissful approval at changes made in weekly meetings. They argue that public schools are failing their kids so they deserve a better choice. Supporters figure that if the system isn’t meeting your needs, why not pull some strings and get your kid out of there? While people obviously want to give their children the best learning opportunities possible, what about everyone else?

The neighborhood schools will continue to flounder even if the few students accepted into charter schools flourish. When involved parents remove their own kids without thinking about the bigger picture, they are effectively leaving the public schools to crash and burn.

Providing opportunity for a few means inevitably neglecting others, including students who deserve a decent education as much as anybody but whose parents may not have the time or resources to invest in their child’s schooling.

When students leave a school district to enroll at a charter school, the state money follows them to the new school. Siphoning resources (funding, students with concerned parents, attention from elected officials, neighborhood support) from public schools to charter schools when the public system is already grossly underfunded is not only a poor solution, but a recipe for disaster.

New research suggests charter schools may not be all they’re cracked up to be. A study released last month, conducted by researchers at the University of California and Stanford University, suggests that charter schools across the country are replicating the very problems they are intended to fix. Nationwide, the funding shortfalls that beleaguer public schools are hurting charter schools too, and inexperienced, unqualified teachers have hampered achievement. So not only do charter schools drain resources and ignore the larger issue of public education, but they may be hindering their own students’ progress as well.

The desire to move students from public school to a charter school or private school comes from failing public schools. Addressing the real crisis, then, means finding a way to fix public education. This can be done by transferring the same benefits trumpeted by supporters of charter schools into our public schools.

Smaller class sizes? Proper funding could make building more schools, hiring more teachers and providing teachers with more training all possible.

Teacher accountability? Unhappy parents can take their complaints to teachers, administrators, or even go to local school districts if they have concerns. Teacher improvement measures in President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act are already in place, and state school boards are already rising to meet the challenge.

Parents want to be more involved? The best learning happens when parents and teachers collaborate, and that can happen in public schools just as easily as in private or charter schools.

Regardless of the choices presented, public schools are always going to serve the majority of our country’s students. Reforming Utah’s public education system is obviously easier said than done, but promoting charter schools that offer opportunity to a few at the expense of the many is not the way to do it.

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