Before You Join the Exodus to Charter Schools--Do Your Research!
You would think that someone who has qualms with public education would very much support the charter school movement, and to an extent, I do. I think that there are some noble people who mean very well. On the other hand, I think that the mission of charter schools often gets lost - and for the same reasons we lose sight of what's important in public schools. Yes, class sizes are smaller, but with many new charter schools popping up in cities near you, does smaller necessarily mean better? Here are some factors you may wish to consider before signing up for the charter school lotteries outlined in Waiting for Superman.
There are two charter schools in my city. One has a reputation that precedes it. It is known for having no formal discipline policy and things are created as they become issues. Granted, one might argue that this is going to be a problem in any new school. However, many new schools ensure they have thought things out. When you're researching a charter school, you'll want to check up on it. Talk to teachers and former teachers. Talk to students and parents. Ask whether they thought the school was organized. Yes, there is a certain extent of confusion in a new school, but you shouldn't hear complaints that curriculum changed from year to year, that students didn't have textbooks because there wasn't a budget for them, or that teachers quit because they couldn't deal with policy changes.
In the problem school, there is a problem with teacher burnout. A substitute teacher commented that she was being asked to fill in for the remainder of a semester and teach subjects she had no experience in after two teachers quit mid-year. The burnout rate in charter schools is higher than the burnout rate at public schools. Charter school teachers have a higher turnover rate - that means that teacher your son or daughter loved for English 9 might not be there next year. This can make it difficult for students to build a rapport with teachers in order to get recommendation letters for college and work. Many charter schools also have mandatory summer school for all grades. Teachers (and students) do not get the down time they need to rest and prepare for the new school year.
It's horrible to describe any sort of educational situation as a "dumping ground" but one should be aware that many "at-risk" students and students with behavioral and discipline problems wind up at charter schools. Part of the reason for this is that well-meaning parents are trying to find any solution they can to help their students learn. Other parents see a charter school as a last-ditch effort to get their kids out of the more dangerous public schools and separate a child from negative influences. What this means for you and your student is that you may find your student in a classroom with a student or two who has been kicked out of the local public school for disciplinary problems - and teachers who are ill-equipped and not trained to deal with such youth.
Another problem facing charter schools is the same challenges facing public schools, because charter schools are public schools and the funding for these schools depend upon public funds. Because charter schools are often newer, parents may need to foot the bill for some of the activities. This may also mean that fundraising is a huge priority. Even when a faculty means well, if the money isn't there in the community, charter schools are often the first to close. You may find yourself in a situation where your child has been at the same K-8 school since kindergarten and he or she now needs to be integrated into a traditional public school because the charter school is closing its door.
Just because a school is a charter school doesn't mean that it's automatically an outstanding school. You need to do your research to make sure that the school has good results. A study found that 37 percent of charter schools scored worse than traditional public schools when assessments were performed. This means you really need to do your homework when it comes to looking into using a charter school for your child's education. Check the public records to see how that school is performing when compared to other schools in your district. Even though the makers of Waiting for Superman have some very valid points, the idea that the solution to all of our problems is the charter school is a little naive. I have no doubt in my mind that there are some superior schools out there - but research really needs to be done to make sure the one near you fits that bill.
So...What Are My Options?
When it comes to educating children, there are many options. There are public schools, magnet schools, charter schools, private schools, and homeschools. When choosing what educational method to choose for your child, it's important to consider your child's needs. Don't hop on a bandwagon simply because other people are. If your child is doing well in public school and is happy, I see no reason to pull him or her out. If, on the other hand, your child is having a hard time, you might want to look into the reasons why - does that student need extra attention? Does he or she need a specialized or more challenging curriculum? Is a smaller classroom better? Whatever you choose, remember to do your research to check your expectations. Most importantly, always advocate for your child.
Waiting for Superman http://www.waitingforsuperman.com/action/
Ravich, D. "The Charter School Problem: Results are much less positive..." in The NY Daily News.
Thevenot, B. "Charter School Turnover" in the Texas Tribune.
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