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Are charter schools the solution?
Unfortunately, Mary Anna Towler's comprehensive article regarding charter schools further obfuscates the topic ("Changing My Mind About Charter Schools," Urban Journal). The most comprehensive study she cites defines lottery participants as a single class, valid for comparison between winners and losers. The study concludes that charter schools are better than standard public schools by comparing the results of winners (in charter schools) and losers (in public schools). Clearly there is no validity to arriving at this conclusion.
The lottery winners, in charter schools, are in schools where EVERY student has more than average parental involvement. The losers are in schools where many, probably most, students have limited or no parental involvement.
The conclusion I draw is that parental involvement is helpful to student performance, but the school environment is also important. In this case, one could conclude that a school with 100 percent parental involvement will do better for their students than a school with limited parental involvement.
There are two possible ways to address the question of whether charter schools have better outcomes than standard public schools.
1) My preference is to establish two or three charter schools in a district, like the City of Rochester, where students are assigned to the charter schools by a truly random selection process. Then require the charter schools to keep all of the assigned students, just as public schools must.
2) Create two or preferably three general public schools in which all the students are the lottery losers. No students whose parents did not participate in the lottery can be admitted. These public schools must conform to all district rules and guidelines, just as any other public school must. They must be in their own buildings. Parental involvement must be required comparable to charter schools.
In either or preferably both of these scenarios, valid conclusions comparing the ability of charter schools to offer superior educational performance may be drawn.
It is wonderful that opportunities for poor and underprivileged parents and children to pursue a successful primary education are becoming more plentiful, but I am perhaps more reluctant than Towler to back charter schools as a solution to the miserable state of urban education.
There are problems with public education, and I don't believe myself intelligent enough to propose solutions; merely, I fear that the successes of private education will come to overshadow the remaining unfortunate many who will undoubtedly be left out and forced to pursue public education. I fear that we as a public will become satisfied by the mild gains of charter schools and forget about the ever-present issues facing public education.
If we as a community are not prepared to continue working toward the betterment of the less privileged, the less wealthy, the less educated, if we are not focused on reforming the public education system so that it proves effective even after the introduction of more charter schools, then we are submitting to a debilitating cultural apathy.
The problems of our education system aren't fixed by an accessible collection of private institutions. After all, the private education system only serves a select few. If we are not mindful about providing an adequate education system and climate in which students and families may succeed, what's the point? We, as a community, are still leaving a large portion of the population within the clutches of a broken system. We must ask ourselves if this is ok.
While I accept and understand that much of what Mary Anna Towler said is true and potentially good for some children, the outcome is frightening.
She points out that "charter schools tend to have fewer students with disabilities and students for whom English is not the primary language." So let's see: Children with more difficult home lives; who have emotional, physical, or behavioral problems, or do not speak English well, all go to public schools. In addition, if charter school students are having difficulty, they can be immediately sent back to public schools.
The result is to have charming charter schools and nightmarish public schools, with reduced funds and staff, which are held up for constant public scrutiny.
It reminds me of the April 1968 film, "A Class Divided," where blue-eyed children and brown-eyed children are set against each other. Now any child walking into a Rochester public school is already deemed a failure. Ask yourself: Are you going to try to get good grades under these circumstances? Probably not.
The only fair thing is to level the playing field. All charter schools should be required take all students regardless of desirability.
ELLEN M. MANCUSO