op-eds

Charter schools

Public schools: bursting at the seams with unhappy students; containing dingy cafeterias with inconsumable lunches; hosting incompetent teachers who could care less about the well-being of future generations.

For some reason, public schools get a pretty bad rap. Perhaps it’s based on the past experiences of parents who were not given attention in grade school. Maybe the research done on public schools is primarily in urban areas, where many other factors contribute to the poor education that eclipses the lives of our children. It’s possible that too many people watched the highly publicized documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman’” in 2010.

Regardless, it’s no wonder Johnson City is planning the development of a charter school in the downtown area for parents who are dissatisfied with their children’s public education. However, where is the proof that charter schools are so much better?

There isn’t much. In 2013, The Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University conducted a study on national charter schools. In comparison to regular public schools across the country, the study shows that 56 percent of students saw no growth after transferring to charter. Only 25 percent considered themselves better off than they were, and the final 19 percent found their charter school to be significantly worse for the wear. Furthermore, the same study shows that if a new charter school is not successful in the first year, it is unlikely to survive.

Charter schools, especially when under private ownership, function more as a business than an educational institution. According to the Department of Education’s most recent Schools and Staffing Survey in 2013, the average charter school teacher has only two years of experience in the field. Hiring committees typically go after younger, less experienced teachers who are willing to work for a smaller salary than at public schools. This, combined with the student tuition, enables the private owner to turn a significant profit by the end of the year, regardless of test scores.

Charter schools typically have a highly selective application process. Although some committees consciously accept demographic minorities into programs, it is highly likely that the results in Johnson City may be skewed, seeing as only 60 students are to be accepted in the first year. The Civil Rights Project of UCLA notes that the average charter school has only about 10 percent diversity. Conversely, when public schools are required to accept all walks of life into their institutions, the classrooms become a realistic model for the world, rich in diversity. This forces children to interact with people who are different from them, as they will be sure to do in adulthood. This is a severe consequence of charter schools that must not be overlooked.

The lack of liberal arts opportunities in charter schools is a big blow to many students. While federal reforms have limited the amount of spending set aside for the arts, public schools in East Tennessee have persistently fought to keep their music and art programs. Charter schools do not include such opportunities at all. Extracurricular activities must be sought outside of school, where students must often pay additional fees. For students who are not suited to enter the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field, charter schools are surely not an ideal option.

That being said, the argument behind charter schools is strong. When charter schools are highly selective, the class size shrinks, therefore lowering the teacher-to-student ratio. On top of this, the charter school in Johnson City is intended to provide a route to specialized learning for students interested in entering the science field in the future. Tennessee public schools have struggled to promote their STEM programs in the past, and separating a number of students from their peers to enroll in a stand-alone academy could be the answer.

Charter schools are great for a very select group of students. Unfortunately for advocates of these programs, education in the United States needs to be inclusive and diverse.

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