I don’t know how I feel about charter schools, and I’m trying to give it some thought because many of the anti-TFA things I’ve read lately have criticized an over-emphasis on charter schools within the organization. Since I often think by writing, here’s my thinking.
First of all, does TFA overdo it on the charter schools? In NM, we have only 1 charter school in town, which opened last year, and to the best of my knowledge no TFA-NM CMs have ever been placed in a charter school (and how’s that for a lot of acronyms!). But my impression from Institute, other regions, and the fact that most people who come to talk to us are from charter schools is that, yes, TFA in general does love the charters. Now, is that a bad thing?
What’s wrong with charter schools? The big (and I think, valid) criticism is that they don’t educate everyone. To get into a charter school, your parents have to put you on a wait list or into a lottery, so charter schools automatically self-select for more involved families. What’s more, some charters reportedly counsel or kick out kids who are more difficult to educate for whatever reason—behavior problems, special needs, kids who aren’t performing. Attrition rates tend to be enormous. There is also a lot of talk about data doctoring, with some charters fudging the numbers so that the school looks to be fabulous when it is actually not doing all it claims to (whether a charter school stays open or not is often tied to the scores, providing a great incentive to lie). At the same time, many people believe these numbers and hold up XYZ charter school to be a model of all things wonderful, and even use it as evidence that it IS possible to do amazing things with little resources. This is tricky because the next argument is usually, so why aren’t YOU doing that, School Next Door? And then people start pointing fingers and arguing and it all turns into a big mess.
So, charters are bad because they only work for some kids, and they aren’t always as good as they say they are. Clearly a school system based entirely on charters doesn’t sound like a good idea.
The idea of charter schools was originally to give schools less funding than traditional schools but not hold them to the same policies and rigid rules. Charters were supposed to be able to try something different, or try something new, in the hopes that it would improve things for the kids who go there. Maybe if we were really lucky, someone would hit upon an idea that traditional schools could use too. They aren’t supposed to be the norm, they’re supposed to be the exception.
Some charter schools do great things. Some don’t. It’s a bit of a gamble, and you don’t know if it will work out or not. But what if you don’t have any charter schools? Look at my current town, which just opened its first charter elementary school last year.
The alternative is that you have no choice to go anywhere but your local traditional school. The alternative sucks. I don’t have to explain how many schools don’t have enough teachers, or how many of the teachers we do have are not really trying, or how many kids don’t pass tests, or how hard it is to change anything. Education is broken across the country, and it’s especially broken here. We are in a rural region with a real lack of financial and human capital. We don’t have the money to do many things. We also don’t have enough talented, dedicated, hardworking, caring people who are willing to come out here to live and work. That’s not to say we don’t have any money or any people, but we certainly don’t have enough.
In cities, there is a chance, however small, that you might be able to work really, really hard and transfer to a magnet school, or a charter school that is doing great things, or maybe your family would even move to a smaller place in a better district so you could have more of an educational shot. You can’t do that here, because we don’t have magnets, or charters, and the closest place you could move that has passing rates above 50% is 160 miles away.
Ideally, we want to educate everyone. All kids should have the opportunity to excel in school, and use that education to achieve their goals and dreams. And here, that is not happening. At all. Doing the same thing in the same traditional schools has not been working. Charter schools are supposed to be trying something new. Yes, it’s a gamble, and we don’t know if it’ll come up heads or tails. But I do know that if my (hypothetical) kid goes to traditional schools here, the coin is weighted heavy on the tails, even for my hypothetical kid whose family is educated and involved. So there’s a voice in the back of my head saying, if the big complaint about charters is that they only work for some kids, AT LEAST THEY WORK FOR SOME KIDS. Things are so broken here that that might be a big step up.