Friday, February 10, 2017

Why Don't We Love Charter School Betsy?

The new US Secretary of Education is a big supporter of charter schools and religious private schools. Some may ask why this is a problem. Here's my long answer with personal experiences.

When the movie “Waiting for Superman” delivered its message on the 'superiority' of charter schools, our local Guilford Education Alliance held a focus meeting to analyze the movie and the realities of charter schools. The meeting included a teacher from one of the “successful” charter schools in the movie. The teacher said the movie didn’t show the discipline methods used at the school, which included forcing students to wear dirty t-shirts and be shamed and ostracized if they got into trouble.

The movie did include statistics showing that some charter schools are very successful, but others are not – the range is similar to public schools. Yet, NC Republicans jumped on the charter school bandwagon. Why? 
1. The schools were shiny and new.
2. Republican Party support for public schools has gradually and deliberately eroded since Integration.

Note: NC does not have teachers’ unions. We have a lobbying and support association, but they do not require membership, negotiate contracts, or call strikes.
Reasons I’m not crazy about Charter Schools –

1. They don’t have central administration oversight, so parents and students have little recourse when crazy stuff happens. 
2. They give public tax money to private companies, some of which operate these schools for profit. 
3. They are not required to provide busing, free lunches, or special services for students who need them. This means they cater to two-parent affluent families, and pull these families, their volunteer support, and their public tax dollars out of the public schools.  The more charter schools you have, the more public schools will dwindle.

I love all the FB posts about public school experiences! I’ve been a huge supporter of public schools with central administration oversight, partly because I’ve experienced private schools.
In 4th grade, I moved from a tiny, elitist private school in SC to Guilford County Schools in NC. It was SO much better – less bullying, no religious indoctrination though people could express opinions, stronger academics, more diversity of all kinds. I loved my neighborhood high school with all the energy and activities to choose from. (Go Hornets!)

My kids attended public magnet schools, partly because our neighborhood elementary was crowded, and partly because I wanted to try the Montessori method. It was great for our family. Magnet schools have the oversight of central administration, which means parents have recourse if there are problems that can’t be solved at the school level. As a PTA president in a brand-new school, I saw the problems that can occur, and learned how to use public school channels to improve things.

Our biggest problem was the over-emphasis on standardized testing imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by George W. Bush. While the NCLBA gave more attention to students with disabilities and language issues, it flattened language arts, history, and science instruction for students who learned more quickly – in eighth grade, one of my daughters spent a lot of time waiting for other students to catch up, and teachers limited themselves to material that was tested. So for high school, we moved her to a ‘Christian’ private school, where she was promised writing instruction in ninth grade. (The public English teachers said they weren’t ‘allowed’ to teach essay writing until 10th grade. This changed with the new Common Core Standards.)

The ‘Christian’ school was a decent size, had decent athletics, and people were nice to my sweet blonde child. But the religious indoctrination was constant, and this was a Tea Party school. We had many critical thinking conversations at home, when, for instance, the principal stood in front of several hundred teenagers and announced that anyone who was gay would go to hell. Bullying was common. Peace signs weren’t allowed because someone thought they were associated with the Devil. Evolution was taught in Biology because it’s required for AP tests, but it was scoffed at as only a theory. Ken Hamm’s ‘Young Earth’ interpretation was taught, including the idea that the Devil planted dinosaur bones in the earth to fool disbelievers. My child had to do a project on Creationism. We combed through the Bible for passages that countered the close evangelical reading she was getting at school, and found plenty, but our faith in ‘Christian’ churches was damaged. I was relieved when we moved to Dubai after two years.

Dubai doesn’t have public schools for its expat population, so we had to go private, and found a terrific International Baccalaureate school, where my kids were the only Americans in most of their classes, and I substitute-taught and participated on the principal’s advisory board. My girls both blossomed. Though the majority of the school was Muslim, no one ever tried to convert me or my kids. We did have plenty of open-minded conversations about religious differences, and learned a lot about Islam. The school was new, so sports and the arts programs were just getting started, and we were involved. This school did have central oversight, because it was part of a group of schools, and the consultants who visited, tested, and guided our school were knowledgeable and reasonable.

When we came back to the US, our younger daughter had her last two years in a large public high school that also had a strong IB program, marching band, and all the benefits I had at Western Guilford.

Setting up a new school takes time, money, and a lot of work. Most charter schools will not be better than the public schools they replace, but they will diminish the effectiveness of the local public schools. They will take public money and put it into the pockets of private companies and individuals. They will decrease educational diversity. And they will disproportionately hurt poor and special-needs students. Public school teachers recognize this, which is why they have lobbied against having a charter-school proponent in charge of our country’s public schools.

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