Opinion in “The News Journal” Scapegoats Charter Schools
Last week, The News Journal posted an opinion that opined the fact that our schools have become more segregated due to charter schools and school choice options – while failing to acknowledge the basic rules of our education system that lead to this problem in the first place.
First, let’s put to rest the debate that school choice is beneficial. Consider Delaware’s non-public school options, which enrolled over 15 percent of total students during the 2010-2011 school year – not to mention the much larger system of school choice embedded in our real estate market. These options, readily available to many middle-to-high income families, are, by definition, school choice since they vote with either their wallet or their mortgage. Lower-income families, unfortunately, don’t have that luxury. Without these options, they are left to send their children to their district feeder school, regardless of its performance – bringing us to the purpose of (some) charter schools and school choice, which is to level the educational playing field by giving parents access to the free market that they can’t afford on their own. Until we tackle issues of funding and governance (along with others, such as development), segregation along income, and presumably race, lines is here to stay, with charters and school choice as the most viable, albeit imperfect, option we have.
Second, the opinion claims that charters are de facto segregation. Analyzing at the data reveals what is demonstrated in the above paragraph, which is that district schools (not just charter) are negatively impacted by this reality. For example, Warner, Stubbs, and Harlan Elementary schools, all from different districts and located within the city of Wilmington, have low-income and minority populations whose percentages far outnumber both district/state student populations and that of Delaware as a whole. Therefore, students that attend these schools aren’t segregated because of charters or choice; rather, they experience segregation in spite of these options. And while the author argues that charters and choice allow districts to avoid the tough decisions to combat this reality and its effects, the opposite is actually true in practice – only when forced, either by poor performance or decreasing enrollment/income, have we seen movement, although relatively weak, to improve opportunities for these kids.
Third, this conversation ties in to the broader movement to more accurately measure the school and teacher-level impact on student learning. While it’s no doubt true that more affluent kids disproportionally benefit from enriching environments outside the classroom, that doesn’t relieve us of our responsibility to assess the impact our precious tax dollars have on all students’ learning. This is at the heart of Common Core’s promise to provide a clear road map and end goal towards college and career readiness. And, more importantly, it’s the lynchpin of our state’s move towards a more growth oriented measurement of student success. These efforts, in the end, might yield results that surprise us all – helping all parents, regardless of zip code, determine which schools/teachers push their kids further, and faster, rather than across a specific cut-off point (proficiency at the end of the year).
Fourth, the author states that choice has led to overcrowding in some schools and vacant rooms in others. While that could be true, one could argue that districts and the Department haven’t exhausted all means necessary to identify building vacancies – many of which the nation’s highest performing charters would happily use and be held accountable to produce the results the author covets.
Unless we’re willing to tackle issues of funding and governance, we must work within the constraints of our system by taking a multi-pronged approach to both increase the availability and impact of charters and choice options while promoting best practices within our district schools – especially those from low-income and minority backgrounds that can’t access these on their own.