The lure of charters and other educational “reforms”

by David Safier

Imagine you're a parent in Compton, CA, with your children attending a public school rife with all the inner city problems like poor test scores, low high school graduation and major discipline problems. If the principal, district superintendent and teachers' union tell you to be patient, that they're working on the problem, you have absolutely no reason to believe them. You know things won't be much different while your child is in school so long as they're running things.

So why not sign a petition to turn your school into a charter school? What do you have to lose? You see how little hope your current school provides, and you've seen stories of charter school success. Can things get much worse?

Over 60% of parents with children at McKinley Elementary School in Compton signed a petition to change the school into a charter, which means it will happen. Naturally, lots of teachers and administrators are upset and worried. But if I were one of those parents, I think I'd sign the petition as well.

The question is, what happens next? Will the charter get better results from its students? If so, I say, that's good for the children and their parents. Will the parental buy-in encourage them to get more involved in their children's educations? If so, that's good as well.

I suspect, and I hope I'm wrong, that the charter will have little positive effect, or it will help some students by getting rid of others who are disruptive or poor academic performers. And I suspect the school will be used as an anti-union sledge hammer. And I fear the school will be taken over by one of those Educational Management Organizations (EMOs) which move the school's control to Virginia or somewhere like that and charge all kinds of management fees that suck resources away from the children. Ten years down the line, children and parents may be no better off, maybe even worse off, for the change.

This is the push-and-pull of charter schools and the whole school choice movement. It's absolutely true  there are huge problems with our educational system, especially when it comes to children in poor neighborhoods. But just because the school choice movement can define and explain the problem doesn't mean it knows the solution. One of the best ways to con people is to "understand" their problems and explain them in such exquisite detail, they feel despondent. Then any solution the conner gives to the connee looks good. I mean, if you understand the problem so well, certainly you understand the solution, right? Unfortunately, not right.

The charter and school choice movements will be with us in the short term, meaning for the next decade or two. Whether they'll last much beyond that. Whether they'll have positive results or do more harm than good, is an unanswered question. But they're not going away any time soon.

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