Charter vs. Public: Does it Really Have to be Either/Or?

28 11 2010

Yesterday, I took advantage of the inclement weather, a lazy Saturday, and Netflix streaming by watching Madeleine Sackler’s The Lottery. This documentary follows four families who are waiting to discover if their children will be randomly selected for a very coveted spot in a successful charter school–the Harlem Success Academy. The film provides statistics about the failure of public schools in America and more closely focuses on the failure of local “zoned” schools. This film, like Waiting for Superman (which I haven’t seen), seems to make a very strong argument in favor of charter schools. Of course, many players in the public education arena have taken issue with this stance, since charter schools themselves are exempt from union contracts. This seems to be setting up an us vs. them mentality between charter school officials and public school officials.

But I think this is distracting us from the real debate.

Let’s face it. There are charter schools that outperform public schools. But not all of them do. In fact, according to the Stanford CREDO study, only about seventeen percent perform better than comparable public schools, and thirty-seven percent perform far worse. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to sing the praises of American public education either because there are significant problems with that system too.

So what’s the actual issue? Obviously, it’s an emotional one, especially because it includes an element of union vs. non-union. But these emotions are adult issues; they have nothing to do with the kids.

As I said earlier, this charter vs. public argument is simply skirting the real question, which really should be “What does good education look like?” Who cares whether good education happens at a charter school, a public school, or a private school? How about we remove our emotions and ask ourselves what the exceptional charter schools are doing to be successful? What are exceptional public schools doing? What are excellent private schools doing? And, more importantly, what do all these good schools have in common? When we figure that out, we can replicate that success.

Let’s be real. Charter schools, private schools, and parent choice aren’t going away. If we’re going to save public education in the country, we need to be willing not only to share our own successes, but we also need to be willing to listen and learn.

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