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Charter Schools Are Not Villains

I've long supported parental choice because I believe parents best understand the needs and interests of their own children. What works for one child is a disaster for another ("Orderliness in School - What a Concept," The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 15). 

Although parents have always been able to enroll their children in private and religious schools, it's only been fairly recently that charter schools have been an option.  We know that not all charter schools offer a quality education. But in New York City at least, Success Academies received 22,000 applicants for 2,300 slots, while Achievement First there received 21,000 applications for 1,000 slots.  Moreover, charter-school enrollment has grown by 260,000 nationwide. No matter their controversial tactics, demand clearly outstrips supply there.

One reason these two particular chains appeal to parents is their emphasis on strict behavior.  Traditional public schools, in contrast, by law must enroll all who show up at their doors regardless of interest or motivation.  They are the schools of last resort in too many parts of the country.  Albert Shanker emphasized the importance of orderly classrooms.  He urged the placement of chronically disruptive and violent students in alternative schools.

I readily acknowledge that learning can take place in many different school environments.  A quiet, orderly classroom is no assurance of learning.  In fact, the deepest learning often occurs in an atmosphere of apparent mayhem.  But when there are no rules and no consequences for outrageous behavior, I think students are invariably shortchanged.

That's what happened at the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District where I taught for 28 years. I saw how the failure to hold students and parents accountable resulted in a slow undermining of learning. The high school that once was considered among the best in California is now indistinguishable from high schools in the inner-cities of the state.

There's no question that charter schools have an advantage over traditional public schools.  But they are not the villains.  The long wait lists for admission is evidence that they offer something that appeals to parents. We can continue to bemoan the different set of rules they play by, but most parents are not willing to sacrifice their own children on the altar of fairness.

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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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