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The Charter School Paradox

As readers of this column know, I try to see both sides of the issues affecting education in this country.  That's why I subscribe, for example, to The Nation and The Weekly Standard, among other publications. Perhaps I expected too much, but I was disappointed by the lack of balance in the series of essays in The Nation, which gave particular attention to  charter schools ("Saving Public Schools," Oct. 13). 

If charter schools are guilty of all the sins described in the multi-part cover story, then why are there waiting lists across the country of mostly poor black and Hispanic parents who are desperate to get their children enrolled in these schools?  The numbers vary from city to city, but they are undeniable evidence of the appeal that charter schools have for many parents. For example, in New York City about 49,700 students were on wait lists in April, according to the New York City Charter School Center.  A record number of students there applied to charter schools, continuing a five-year trend. Although the waitlist data are unaudited and therefore subject to exaggeration, I don't buy the claim that they should be dismissed out of hand.  Just recently, several thousand parents and students in New York City rallied in support of charter schools ("17 Charter Schools Approved for New York City, Expanding a Polarizing Network," The New York Times, Oct. 9). Perhaps this demonstration was orchestrated, but it too cannot be ignored.

I readily acknowledge that charter schools play by a totally different set of rules than traditional public schools.  I also acknowledge their uneven quality, which studies have corroborated time and again. But parents apparently want to enroll their children.  In fact, by the end of this decade, charter enrollment is expected to reach five million. (At last count, there were about 2.5 million students enrolled in 6,400 public charter schools across the country.)  If true, that will be an amazing achievement because the first charter school began in St. Paul in 1992.  

I continue to be a strong supporter of traditional public schools for reasons I've explained in this column and in other venues over the past two decades.  But I also support parental choice. I don't see this as a contradiction in terms. Yes, parents often make mistakes in their decisions.  However, I maintain it is their right alone to decide what is best for their offspring. Charter schools are accused of increasing racial segregation, but that does not seem to bother poor black and Hispanic parents who want to enroll their children.  I wish The Nation had addressed this paradox in its cover story.  It's too important to brush aside.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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