Why Sending Your Child to a Charter School Hurts Other Children

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.

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.

A market economy thrives on consumerism, itself a type of churn. Possibly the best example of the foundational churn in the free market is the version labeling of all things technology. OS 10.7.5, for example, lets the consumer know that something has been updated, thus improved, but that something even better is on the way.

The great irony of the market economy is that consumerism works regardless of the expertise of the consumer: What the consumer wants drives the products, but the quality of that product is essentially “good” if it conforms to that demand and capital is generated as a result.

However in a democracy, as Thomas Jefferson and other founders realized, the expertise of the public is essential to the quality of the democracy. Well-educated voters are likely to create a thriving and equitable democracy.

As noted above, charter schools represent a new and hybrid version of school choice, one that combines the market ideals of choice and competition with commitments to public institutions, public schools. For parents legitimately unsatisfied with their community schools, charter schools present both choice and the appearance of attending public schools. Therein lies the larger problem that creates the dilemma faced when critics of charter schools clash with those parents seeking better schools for their children.

Although not a simple explanation, parental choice may often (especially in the case of enthusiasm for “no excuses” schools) reflect an idealized faith in choice and competition that is not in the best democratic and equitable interests of the public or any individual family exercising choice.

Instead of seeking yet another type of school choice, educators and parents would likely benefit from committing to reforming public education so that no family needs a choice.

As blogger Jersey Jazzman explains, choosing a charter school for your child is in some ways a submissive act that weakens parental choice and voice:

So you may have made a "choice" when you pulled your kids out of a public school that was run by a local school board responsive to your political will. But that "choice" did not include you having any say in what happens to your children's school when the rich and powerful decide to make an example of it. You have no choice in whether a charter stays open -- so you don't really have a "choice," do you?

While parents should not be marginalized for seeking what is best for their own children, the competition model of consumerism must be challenged so that the public comes to see that what is best for any parents’ child is what is in the best interest of all children. If any parents’ choices secure quality for their child, but other people’s children remain underserved, all children are mis-served.

Educators such as Alfie Kohn and Ravitch represent a democratic tradition that stands in stark contrast to the market ideology driving the enduring faith in parental choice as a central part of education reform, reflecting John Dewey in School and Society: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.”

Ultimately, charter schools can appear successful in individual cases or in the short term, notably when outlier data are presented as typical results in charter schools or when comparisons between charter and traditional schools disregard external and additional funding. But charter schools are not desirable for democracy, or for the goals of civil rights and social justice.

Education, unlike the market, needs to be about collaboration and not competition, as Carr notes at the end of her story: “If the schools want to succeed in the long run, the education they offer must become an extension of the will of the community—not as a result of its submission.”


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