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Why Sending Your Child to a Charter School Hurts Other Children

Parents should fight for quality education for all, not just their own kids.

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On a blog post challenging the role of charter schools in education reform, a parent named Dienne left a comment about choosing to remove a child from “a test-prep, drill-to-kill, twelve times a year testing factory” public school, and then posed a powerful question: “I’d ask you what exactly am I supposed to do?”

Dienne’s question highlights one of the biggest dilemmas charter school critics, many of whom are civil rights and social justice advocates, face: how to speak with, and not for, marginalized parents struggling against poverty, racism and sexism, while many of these parents believe charter schools are in the best interests of their own children.

This predicament can be likened to feminist scholar Martha Nussbaum’s discussion on the role of Westerners in Eastern women’s choices. She asks, when genuine liberation of third-world women results in those women choosing what Westerners perceive as oppressive practices (such as religion), what should be the response? In other words, who decides what choices matter?

While all voices, including parent voices, are important for education reform, we must also push to give voice to those who suffer from the undemocratic nature of charter schools and advance the evidence that shows charter schools often fail goals of equity.

Charter Schools, Educational Problems Old and New

Though charter schools in theory have offered many promises to reform American education, in practice charter schools have tended to replicate the problems found in traditional public schools: resegregating of schools by race and class, schools mirroring and perpetuating the characteristics of the communities they serve, highest needs students assigned to inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers and inequitable discipline policies.

Evidence from student performance reveals that, as Shanker Blog senior fellow Matthew Di Carlo clarifies repeatedly, nothing about “charterness” makes a school either effective or ineffective. A recent analysis of charter schools in Michigan by the Center for Research and Education Outcomes (CREDO) reinforced the central finding about charter versus public school effectiveness: Few differences exist, and thus, as the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) concludes: “Such a finding of almost no difference between charters and non-charters is very much in line with the overall body of past research. Some studies suggest slight benefits, some suggest slight harm, and many show no difference.” And any research that suggests otherwise, like the recently released research on KIPP, contains a lot of missing links.

A substantial difference in student outcomes appears not to exist between public and charter schools just yet, but the existence of charter schools, as Rutgers professor Bruce Baker details, is actually working to erode, not prompt, overall public school quality through competition. Parents choosing charter schools are not necessarily guaranteeing better schooling for their own children and definitely are not helping all children.

As Diane Ravitch argues:

What concerns me most is the possibility that policymakers are promoting dual school systems: a privileged group of schools called charters that can select their students and exclude the ones that are hardest to educate; and the remaining schools composed of students who couldn't get into the charters or got kicked out.

In fact, research has found that charter schools may be more racially and socioeconomically stratified than public schools. And charter schools’ emphasis on “no excuses” ideology works to create a certain type of student. “No excuses” policies are often called a “new paternalism,” as David Whitman explains in an article praising “no excuses” schools in Education Next:

[These schools teach] students not just how to think, but also how to act according to what are commonly termed traditional, middle-class values. … Many paternalistic programs remain controversial because they seek to change the lifestyles of the poor, immigrants, and minorities, rather than the lifestyles of middle-class and upper-class families.