I do not yet have children, but when I do, I will be inclined to either home school them or enroll them in a charter school with an emphasis on the arts, sciences, or another area of their interest. This is not because I do not support the democratic ideal of public school - quite the contrary - but because I would not want my kids to waste their time and potential as my siblings and I did for so many years. The demands on public school are so great that a talented or struggling individual student is easily overlooked and much time is wasted on trying to maintain classroom discipline. Ironically, with their mandate to broadly serve everyone, many public schools end up deeply meeting the needs of no one. I am especially concerned with the over-emphasis on testing and the rote-memorization in public schools that is becoming a proxy for real learning. By contrast, there is a palatable sense of purpose and a dynamic energy at many charter schools, and I would want my kids to be surrounded by that aura of dedication, personal attention, and quality instruction.
And yet, for all of their appeal, I don't know that these schools are the solution. For one thing, I would argue that they are succeeding right now partially because they are the “exception”, an alternative to the mainstream. If everyone joins Charter schools, they will lose that cache, that exclusivity and sparkle that underlies their mission and helps them raise funds and attract glowing media attention. Additionally, many Charter schools are allowed to select their students in a way that public schools aren’t – the latter are obligated to serve everyone within their boundaries, even when they are stretched beyond capacity or have inadequate resources.
Secondly, I would assert that depending on a few highly educated souls who are willing to work for a pittance is not a solution for public education at large. I have a good friend who works at one such Charter school. She is highly qualified and well-compensated for her hours, but she only works part-time as a music teacher, a situation that will never change since her charter school schedules its academic courses in the morning and its art classes in the afternoon (that way, all employees are part-time). In a public school, she would work full-time (possibly travelling between two or three schools, but she’d have a full-time salary), would have health benefits and would be participating in the state retirement system. After five years of working for this charter school, she is faced with an impossible dilemma: does she continue to make a meager living out of the sheer love of education? Or, does she eventually want to be able to afford a moderate standard of living – one exhibited by her students’ families-including having health insurance?
It seems to be deeply embedded in our culture that teachers should be some kind of ascetic, noble saints with no material aspirations of their own - as if demanding a living wage is gross selfishness on their part. It’s almost as if our society believes that to pay teachers a professional wage would somehow degrade their civic mission, that money would soil the purity of their calling. I would argue instead that by paying low wages, society tells its future college students that to become a teacher is to sell oneself short, that to teach is not a “real” job.
Further, I question whether it is in the best interest of the schools - Charter or public- and the communities they serve to have mini waves of idealistic Ivy League grads who flit in for a few years of “playing teacher” before moving on to bigger and better things.
Two parts of this widely-held belief don’t sit right with me. For one thing, why do we assume that graduates from expensive and internationally acclaimed schools automatically will be able to make a more lasting impact on students’ lives – especially impoverished students in broken communities- than teachers who come from those communities? These elite universities deserve their accolades, but most of their accomplishments lie in more prestigious scientific fields and not in education. We need improved pedagogy across the board at ALL of our state universities instead of relying on some magical way to lure these brilliant and selfless stars from the East Coast to come serve in our community for a year or two. While these graduates do have something valuable to give from their hearts, we need sustainable educational policy and not charity depending on students wealthy enough to take a few years off.
Additionally, we need teachers who are going to put down roots in their community, who will have a stake in the big picture and who will be intimately familiar with the neighborhood and district’s needs. Yes, there are teachers who “should have retired a long time ago” or who are simply warming the seat and climbing the pay scale without making a difference in their students lives, but their presence should be a call to professionalize the field instead of doing quite the opposite by treating the career as a community service year to be experienced and then abandoned.
Finally, are the lessons from Charter schools’ success applicable to the public school model? And if not, with the exception of a few inner-city success stories, are they just a way for disaffected middle class families to ensure that their kids get a private-school education on public dollars? And worse, what of the concern that they are siphoning public tax dollars away from the traditional public schools, thereby reinforcing the cycle that dooms public schools to fail? Many argue that the money should be put where it will have a higher success rate, and I agree – but is this merely a way to pass the buck onto private enterprise instead of having the civic and political conversations needed to address the core problems and challenges in educating our youth for the 21st Century?