What is a charter school?

Posted: Friday, April 02, 2010

President Obama recently stated he would begin fixing the educational system by giving rewards to those innovative charter schools achieving high standards. More recently, he promised to modify the punitive No Child Left Behind in favor of a subtle and dangerous new version called "Race to the Top," that rewards schools for "progress." Sincere though he may be, his sound bite needs further probing. What is a charter school and how are they achieving these results?

Charter schools are described as public schools. The origin of charters is in itself a sad and divisive political discussion. "Charter" is a specially designated name to describe the set of conditions, beliefs and curriculum under which the school chooses to operate. These are listed on the original application and some of the more notable special conditions include: smaller class sizes than traditional public schools; control of curriculum; a lottery drawing to select from a group that is motivated to be there; children of teachers have guaranteed admission.

Considering these privileges, a charter school should be more accurately defined as: a school within the public school system, with private school privileges, supported with public school money, but at the detriment of the traditional public schools. This elite set of privileges creates the potential for each class in a charter school to create an academic all-star team, achieving the kind of innovation and high standards our president is looking for. Although charter school superiority is not proven, in a race to the top, charter schools should be the likely winners.

So what's wrong with that? It's sort of like taking the ham from the family picnic, then running off into the tall grass to chuckle while feasting, leaving others realizing the picnic just wasn't the good time it could have been.

When it comes to being rewarded for excellence, it is more likely to happen if we put these great students with great test scores back into the traditional public schools they came from. Without them, another sucker punch could be on the way. These students and their teachers are the very same group that used to be in the traditional public schools, only now they've been granted a different building. The teachers in our three charter schools are great! What teacher wouldn't want a smaller class of motivated, parentally supported students? Who can blame the parents for wanting something cozy?

However, there is nothing happening in any charter school in America that could not be happening in a traditional public school and we must ask ourselves if their benefits outweigh the risks they place on the true public schools. Our PTSA, site councils and School Board are the vehicles available to nurture excellence in any school and they work best when engaged. Supplanting the cream of the crop from traditional public schools into separate buildings is a confusing educational phenomenon born of strange politics which all to often seems to be creating a newfound sense of American entitlement.

Family re-union notwithstanding, the traditional public schools must do what they have always done. Take absolutely every student that comes through the door, recognize their individual differences, God-given potential and limitations, then do the very best job possible to develop them under any set of conditions. No Child Left Behind? The traditional public schools have been doing it forever! Only now, they will most likely be unfavorably compared to the elitism of the private public schools, followed closely by the cowardly blaming.

If we can't provide the same set of conditions for education for every student that charter schools provide, we should provide it for none. We know that we can't and that is why the state capped the number of charter schools at 60. It's time to eliminate the charter schools in our district and have the family re-union. Ham included.

One School. One People.

Paul Zobeck,


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