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Charter Schools: The Stepchildren of Public Education

A thousand flowers blooming doesn't necessarily make a healthy garden. Having worked with charter schools for more than two decades, I have seen many beautiful flowers bloom, but I've also seen my share of weeds. And there are some real bare spots in the garden.

In the next 25 years, we need to think about how we integrate charter schools with the broader public school system and participate in creating a comprehensive public school sector where every student can find a good school that meets their needs.

Dirk Tillotson

Most charters are niche schools. They are relatively small and focus on doing a few things well. This can be great for students who thrive in them, but it can be a problem for the system as a whole when we can't address the needs of every student. That's not just a charter issue—it is the nature of all small schools.

Many of the schools I've helped start were targeted to particular underserved students: those on the autism spectrum, English learners, African-Americans, kids that were out of school, those with emerging mental-health challenges. We try to serve everyone who comes to our door, but with a few hundred kids, there is only so much you can do at each site. A school focusing on black boys may not have a great English-language learners program; a school reengaging dropouts may not offer many AP classes. But these schools do a great job with the kids they were designed for.

If charters coordinated with districts and among themselves, we could fill in the garden, creating an environment where every child has a place to thrive. Some charters might specialize in autism inclusion or new immigrants or trauma-informed care, all the while working with the school district to understand the actual student needs, existing programs, and gaps.

Districts would have to share facilities more evenly and work more closely with charters by allocating sites and funding more fairly. With all the talk of billionaire philanthropists and "corporate reform," most people don't recognize that charters have long been the stepchildren in public education, making do with less money and typically less access to public facilities. This needs to change.

In the last 25 years, charters have improved outcomes for individual families and provided crucial options where none existed. But it's hard to say convincingly that they've improved public education overall, building a system that comprehensively meets the needs of the full range of students. That is the challenge for the next era: for charter schools not to play only on the edges of public education, but to reinvigorate the center.

Dirk Tillotson is the founder of Great School Choices, a nonprofit organization committed to helping communities expand educational opportunities for underserved families. 

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