Readers: this blog is set in the future (sometime after the year 2020). Each entry assumes there has been a 5th revolution in the US — the Revenge Revolution. More about the Revenge Revolution and author, How the 5th US Revolution Begins and About the Author.  Many entries are formatted as conversations. Occasionally I do a “sense check” about the likelihood of a Revenge Revolution.  Entry #318 is the most recent “sense check.”  One more note — sometimes I write about another topic that does not quite fit the theme of the blog.  Those comments are available on the page titled “JRD Thoughts and Comments.” 

In the entry describing the coming technology tsunami (#319), I suggested a way to help mitigate the impact of the inevitable tsunami was increasing support for public education.  The first entry about schools described some reasons why I believe charter schools should be banned.

Two key points were: (i) charter schools erode trust in public education, which has been the cornerstone to America’s innovation and economic prosperity. If you want to make America great again, then why destroy the foundation that helped make it great; (ii) additional cost to taxpayers for charter schools. Much of the cost is due to a parallel system of overhead required to support the charter-school system. As noted in the entry, costs for education are not directly linked to the number of students. Major costs continue even if enrollment declines.

A third item referenced, but not addressed in detail, was the effectiveness of charter schools in having students achieve certain performance standards. Based on a number of studies, the efficacy of charter schools is mixed. Students at some charter schools perform better than when in public schools, some about the same and a surprisingly high percentage of students do not perform as well. (There are numerous studies comparing student performance. Results vary widely by locations.)

With such mixed results, why should there be charter schools? Why should taxpayers allow funds to be diverted from public schools to privately run schools where student performance is more often than not no better than public schools? And why divert taxpayer funds to charter schools where oversight of the organization and how taxpayer dollars are spent is less than for funds spent in public schools? Would you let someone manage your 401k whose investment performance was iffy at best and over whom you had little control over investment decisions? If you answered yes…i.e., support lack of accountability of charter schools…then I’ve got a bridge looking for a buyer.

So the question, “Why not take all the time and energy devoted to diverting funds to charter schools and instead, work on improving public schools? We know one reason for charter schools is the obvious effort by the political far right to privatize as many government functions as possible. More importantly, in my view, charter schools are the lazy-man’s solution to educating the populace. Educating people with different skills and different levels of motivation is a difficult task. Charter schools supporters are saying, in effect, “Send students to our schools who meet a certain criteria because we, as charter schools, are for profit, and don’t want anyone to negatively impact our profit.”

Charter schools, however, legitimately appeal to certain parents and/or students. Some reasons cited by parents and/or students for wanting to attend charter schools:

  • Affordable option to private schools
  • Option to enroll outside one’s district
  • Children of all backgrounds eligible
  • Teaching approach innovative
  • Find school to cater to child’s needs
  • Schools managed by organizations or groups of people

Satisfying these and other reasons can be accomplished in the public school system. OK, let’s agree that certain basics need to be in place for all schools – building in good repair, up-to-date textbooks, easy access to the internet; adequate number of teachers and support staff. Within a community all the essentials should be in place for all schools. If not, then the deficiencies need to be addressed…and addressed before any charter schools are discussed or provided additional payments.

Then what are the underlying reasons for the variation in performance scores among the schools? I believe the first reason is lack of commitment within the community for adequate public education for all students. I understand you cannot mandate commitment, much like you can’t lead a horse to water and make it drink. However, as a society we have to provide emotional and financial support for the education of students of the entire community.

Charter schools address some symptoms of what needs to be fixed in the community and the public school system. While charter schools address the symptoms, charter schools are also destroying the very fabric of public education. Charter schools are making the ability of a community to offer effective public education worse, not better. Charter schools are like turning up the sound on your car radio to drown out a bad noise coming from the engine. Duh, turning up the radio does not solve the problem. You’ve got to fix the problem in the engine.

By allowing students to opt out of the public-school system, we…societal we…are actually making the problem worse for students who remain in the public-school system. Many remaining students are likely to have less support at home. As more students leave the public-school system, the performance of remaining students will continue to deteriorate. As a result, then what have charter schools done to help improve the overall education level of society? The answer is nothing.

Here’s a non-school example to illustrate the point. Think of a container of mixed nuts – walnuts, almonds, cashews, etc. If you grab a handful of nuts, usually you end up with most, if not all, the different type of nuts. When you take a bit you get an interesting mix of flavors. Then, someone goes through the container and eats all of a certain type of nut – say cashews. What’s left is a different mix. The next time you grab a handful, all the cashews are missing and the flavor has changed.

Think of your own example – there are many. The point is the character of the container of nuts is different without the cashews, just as the character of the school is different when a certain type of student transfers to a charter school.

The change in the mix of students is not merely a “so what?” We…again societal we…are creating two classes of students and therefore two classes of citizens – those who seem to learn within a structured system and those who are not inspired or motivated by a more structured education system.

Why should we hold back students who want to learn more? That idea seems incredibly stupid. Therefore we need charter schools!!

The idea of throttling back students who want to learn is incredibly stupid. But there is nothing about the public-school system that prevents students from learning more. Public schools can accommodate those students who want to learn more as well as provide a positive and encouraging environment for those student who are not as inspired.

Assuming that all students learn the same way and at the same pace is foolhardy. That kind of thinking is about as foolhardy as assuming all who play golf are capable of shooting par over 18 holes. What is not foolhardy is ensuring that students are reminded constantly of the opportunity to learn…and encouraged constantly to try to learn.

When the discussion turns to how students learn at different rates, I am reminded of my freshman year in college. My first test of any kind was in accounting. After handing in the exam, I was confident of a very good score. The grade? A solid “D”. Oops. Maybe I wasn’t so smart after all.

Sometime between the first and second test, I had an “ah ha” moment and began to understand the principles of accounting. On the next test and on the final, grades were solid “A’s”.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have their “ah ha” moment so early in the semester…or even so early in life. Because some “ah ha” moments are later, we need to provide an education environment where everyone is exposed to an opportunity to learn and encouraged to learn.

Charter schools, and magnet schools to an extent, take away from the public schools a substantial portion of the inspiration to learn and the encouragement to learn – not from the students attending the charter schools but from the students not attending. Put someone else’s shoes on your feet. After higher-performing students leave for charter schools, who’s left in your public school to inspire you to learn?

Teachers are facilitators and ideally mentors. What if you’re a student who is more comfortable seeking help from peers before seeking help from teachers? Now, with many student-helpers gone, where do you turn? Or, do you just get discouraged and eventually give up?

The reasons parents and students give for wanting to attend charter schools make perfect sense. What doesn’t make sense is why society needs to “destroy” the public school system in order to achieve what the students and parents want. The public school system helped make America the innovation and manufacturing marvel of the world for the last 150 years.

If a portion of society wants to spend more taxpayer dollars and have charter schools, why not leverage the dollars and educate even more students? Inspiration for education is not driven by new buildings, good sports teams and the like. Inspiration for education is driven by desire.

Charter schools create a death spiral for public education, which in turn, leads to increased inequities in society and makes it more difficult for people to move up the economic ladder. And, ignore the rubbish that more public education is some kind of socialism. If you want the democracy to survive, you best have an educated public with a wide-spread belief of reasonable economic opportunity.

The community needs to work together to help create a desire for all students to learn, to explore, to try something new…and even to fail. Yes, failing can be a great lesson as long as failing is framed as a learning experience. Not all students learn at the same pace or learn the same way. But all students can learn. We…societal we…have an obligation to encourage students of all ages to learn more and provide those students a fair venue in which to learn.

(Next entry: why not more education in prisons?)