In Defense of Charter Schools

This week, President Trump declared the first “School Choice Week”, a celebration of charter schools constructed throughout the country in the last thirty years. Charter schools suffer from a bitter divide in American politics, and in our communities with many instances of grade rigging, poor student conditions, a lack of educational vision, and in general: money grabbing. Sadly, the majority of charter schools have failing grades — with many closing soon after turning a quick profit on their exploited pupils (the highest being in my home state of Ohio.)

Left-leaning politicians, and most educators, have a disdain for charter schools. They tend to prey on the most vulnerable and charge insane prices for subpar possibilities. The right champions school choice as a liberation from America’s “failing public schools.” And — as a result — with our increasingly polarized political climate, one falls either in one camp or another.

It is true that there are many obvious issues with many charter schools, and it’s sickening. The seeming majority of charter schools open to apply “academic rigor” to areas with the lowest performing students, sometimes targeting urban, high-minority population areas (essentially establishing a segregated school). In this environment, children are militarily brainwashed into a rigid, scheduled environment — a misinterpretation of the idea that problematic students need a solidified schedule to thrive (in fact, it’s that students need structured rules and expectations, not a systematic class structure that’s always the same, that’s just boring.) More often than not, this system fails as students become increasingly rebellious or don’t understand the content (being militant does not make up for missed standards). However, even when successful, these children rarely have opportunities after high school. Without being given the chance to express themselves, students no longer understand how to operate without being told what to do (which, more often than not, are now automated positions).

Furthermore, the majority of charters are designed with a for-profit motive. With profit, comes greed — and horrifically, many who start these schools care more about their bottom line than the children they are entrusted with. With a push towards state test scores and practically nothing else, as the “grade” from the state is determined by them, students are lost as they lose all the other important elements of an education. This doesn’t even encompass the issue of the money being poorly managed and almost all to the top, which causes the school to break apart soon after founding.

 ECOT, the for-profit online charter school with 14,000+ students which recently closed due to the highest dropout rate in the country.

ECOT, the for-profit online charter school with 14,000+ students which recently closed due to the highest dropout rate in the country.

Despite all of this and more, charter schools are still important. On principle, a charter school is a fantastic idea that opens up opportunities for students. There’s no reason why parents and children cannot make the decision to leave a traditional, public school and apply to a new opportunity. A magnet school allows for holistic learning that’s best for everyone. Imagine a world where your child could go to a school based entirely on design, that’s all group and active learning, that’s focused on their love of nature. We often forget that this shouldn’t be about public funding or taxes or government rhetoric — it’s about what is best for a child. If a child learns better in one way, then we should justdo that. The political rhetoric surrounding these schools has caused schools to compete — which makes no sense (despite many politicians branding the purpose of charters as such.) Instead, I welcome the idea of new styles of learning presented to students. It makes our job easier as educators!

The issue is that the majority of charter schools have completely misaligned the movement. Now, if your school is focused on project-based learning, cares less about standardized testing, and receives a poor grade on the yearly standard test, it is lumped in the same pool as the “poorly performing charters”as the militant, brainwashed culture school down the road. With no differentiation, there’s no way of telling which school is a “good” charter vs. a “bad” charter. Now, if you want to start a school that draws students focused on self-discovery, you’ll be berated by the community for taking tax money from public education. These same people state that public education is “not broken” and needs more money to thrive. Why can’t we do both? Standard public schools are not for every learner. In fact, they arguably shouldn’t be for most of them: they have a particular setup that works for ~30% of students who love logical reasoning, but not the majority — everyone learns differently. It’s not an assault on public educators, it’s an assault on the standardization of everything. Teachers who love their students should care about all learners, not just the concept of “public education.”

With that in mind, there are, of course, ground rules when it comes to a strong charter school. They should not be for profit — students are already exploited enough by universities. They should not forget about a child as a human being, and therefore, not be test prep (this foregoes the whole idea of learning differently, and just doubles down on traditional public ed.) They should be held to standards that are laid out in their vision, which is regulated by their local communities. So — stop demonizing charters, they’re not a bad concept. Let’s fix what’s out there and start again with what works — what’s best for children.