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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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Reviewing Lisa Delpit’s Multiplication Is for White People in Education Week, Liana Heitin states that if students don’t fit the bill in “zero-tolerance” policies, the charter schools “find ways to ‘counsel out’ the most challenging student populations.”

Yet, despite the negative consequences of “zero tolerance” models that tend to turn schools into prisons, occurring almost exclusively at high-minority urban schools, parents remain some of the strongest advocates for the “no excuses” policies. Critics argue that education reformers promote these practices with “other people’s children” and not their own. For example, Bill Gates attended and President Barack Obama sends his daughters to schools that are unlike the “no excuses” policies typical at charter schools and test-prep regimens at public schools laboring under high-accountability.

But some parents, speaking for their own children, still push these racist and classist “no excuses” agenda. Sarah Carr, in her book Hope Against Hope, illustrates this point. Carr presents the rise of charter schools replacing public schools in New Orleans from 2010-2012 and focuses notably on Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charters, through a teenager and her family.

The teen, Geraldlynn, finds herself somewhat reluctantly moving from a KIPP middle school to a KIPP high school chosen by her parents. Raquel works two jobs and seeks a better life for Geraldlynn and her family. Geraldlynn explains about KIPP and her mother: “I think she’s in love with KIPP schools. She probably will send me to a KIPP college.”

Carr details these New Orleans parents providing a chorus of approval as the KIPP principal spoke, including shouting “zero tolerance’” and conforming to the KIPP signature display of approval: “A chorus of satisfied snaps ensued.”

Another key characteristic of charter schools reinforcing inequity is “charter churn.” Charter churn results from several characteristics typical of charter schools, including that charters often have “cream-skimming” patterns (enrolling a unique portion of a student population such as subset of special needs students with the least challenging disabilities, pushing high-cost special needs students to remain in public schools) and high rates of student attrition. Churn also includes teacher turnover: “Controlling for all other measurable factors in their model, the authors find that the odds of charter teachers exiting are still 33 percent higher than those of regular public school teachers. There is an even larger difference in secondary schools, where charter teachers are almost four times more likely to leave.”

Stability is a key quality necessary for healthy childhood growth and learning. A stable home, a stable school environment, and a stable economy are all powerful environments within which children thrive. Churn, then, of any kind — parents unable to maintain jobs, changing homes and schools often, teacher turnover — tends to intensify the many related negative consequences of children living and learning in poverty. For example, low student achievement has been linked to the double disadvantage of high-poverty homes and impoverished communities where unemployment and transient housing are common. Public schools, however, do offer the promise of stability that charter schools and school choice tend to disrupt since charter and private schools are driven by market, and not community, commitments.

From Market-Based to Democratic Education Reform

If we are going to reform education as equitable education for all, we need parents who will recognize that charter schools aren’t inherently better than public schools and who will realize that charter schools as a market force harm their communities in the long-run, and thus their own children as well.

Ironically, the most committed defenders of charter schools are often parents who live in poverty and are among the working class and the middle class. Their investment in charters indirectly perpetuates, however, the classist and racist structures they struggle under everyday. Parents choosing charter schools stands as a signal that education needs reform, but that reform must be guided by democratic principles and not market forces in order to reform education for all children.