Back in the 1990s, we lived next door to a family with four children. Charter school legislation was new in my state, and "public school academies"--code for schools with fewer restrictions and public funding--were popping up everywhere. Including the middle of my traditional, middle-class, well-regarded district. The man who founded that school had some ideas that seemed fairly progressive: an ungraded structure with individual academic plans for every child, and an emphasis on Glasser choice theory. District leaders viewed the charter interloper with a mix of skepticism about its unconventional organizational model and anxiety over losing students.
Mom in the family next door confessed, in a backyard conversation before school started, that she had enrolled her children in the charter school. I knew she'd had some run-ins with teachers and administrators in our district--pretty small-potatoes issues, in my opinion. I'm a teacher and used to engaging with parents determined to get special consideration for their kids, but it struck me, for the first time, that the "academy" might turn into a magnet for chronically disaffected parents.
I asked if the family was making the move because of the innovative ungraded program. Nope. In fact, Mom didn't know much at all about the charter's Glasser philosophy. Their move seemed based on four things: She would have more input at the charter, as she had been invited to sit on their Board. She preferred to drive her children to school at a later time, rather than sending them via bus. She did not like some of the teachers her children had at the public elementary our kids attended. She and her husband, who both attended private schools, were big proponents of choice and entrepreneurism, and wanted to support a "new business" in the community.
"I love the idea of choosing which schools my children will attend," she said. "We may end up coming back to the public school, with our tail between our legs, but for now-- we're committing to the new school, and we're excited." Two years later, disillusioned by what they saw as a chaotic environment at the charter, they chose to return (all four children) to the public school.
I tell this story because it represents the early, carefully embroidered aspirations of the charter movement: schools that broke the mold, stretched boundaries, providing a range of educational options--leveraged by public monies. Filled with kids like my neighbors'--tended by two loving parents, making thoughtful decisions for their unique children. Providing distinct educational choices.
Right after school started that year, the superintendent in my district contacted the charter and asked for a list of students who had transferred there--which was readily provided. The first aha: many of the transferred students had been assigned to a hugely unpopular 4th grade teacher in our public district. In other words, parents were not attracted to the charter's innovative new program--students were escaping from a particularly bad teacher, and taking their siblings with them.
That's the reality among advantaged education consumers: While charter promoters talk a great game about families flocking to the innovative, high-quality programming at public school academies, what's more likely is that the charter represents a more palatable option than the public school--perhaps over something as simple as a grumpy teacher, an inconvenient bus schedule, lack of opportunity for parental control. Charters are equally likely to face the same problems as traditional public schools: balky governance boards, mixed teacher quality, programs that sound good on paper, but don't work in practice, money troubles. Even Geoffrey Canada had to shed his first group of middle schoolers when they didn't pass muster on the tests, after all. Not much "choice" for those kids.
Choice is a word that belongs to people with the resources to select from multiple, valid options. Two decades of "school choice" have not provided a range of options for children in poverty, however--and predictable aspects of entrepreneurial school start-ups have intensified: Cutting corners on staff. Relying on private schmoozing and charitable funding rather than community/tax-based support. Focusing on surface features--like uniforms and hall behavior--rather than strong academics. Using public monies for advertising rather than educational quality. Booting kids who don't burnish the school's reputation or scores. Inventing bogus politicized agendas like the parent "trigger" for personal and commercial gain.
Turns out I was right about the charter in my district. It survived and became a magnet for parents with gripes about local public schools. Test scores lag far behind the public schools' but for the parents who like the school, that's not a big deal--they got to choose.
Choice isn't the answer to building a vision of a high-quality, personally tailored, democratic education for every child in America. Nor is it evil incarnate. It's a distraction from the conversation we should be having about improving public education in America.