Looking behind the curtain of school choice, again

Today's post is written by guest blogger, neighborhood schools activist, linguistics PhD, and CPS mom Katie Gruber of Hyde Park. Gruber has appeared here before writing on the failed promise and misleading rhetoric of charter schools and school choice. She urges us to look at the real effects of charter proliferation in our district--and how what we are promised never actually materializes. What's really going on behind the curtain?

After the scene in which Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch, my next favorite scene in “The Wizard of Oz” is when determined little Toto pulls aside the curtain that was allowing the wizard to continue his charade as the Great and Powerful Oz. Just like the wayward balloonist from Kansas who was pretending to be something he wasn’t, there are a great many people who would like to us believe that charter schools reliably deliver quality education to students when instead they deliver very concrete benefits to the people who open them. Like Toto, we need to pull aside the curtain of this rhetoric and expose the problems with “school choice.”

The argument that parents deserve a choice for their child when it comes to school is hard to refute if you just consider the surface meaning of choice in education. We like choices when it comes to most of the things that we buy. But when it comes to delivering water in pipes to our kitchens and bathrooms, it isn’t multiple systems of pipe that we want; we want reliable pipes that don’t leach lead into the water. When it comes to the fire department, we don’t want our tax dollars to pay for two fire stations and have them compete to see which one is better; we want one fire station that’s not far away with trained firefighters who will help our families and neighbors in a fire. It’s important to distinguish between the kinds of goods and services that the notion of choice should be applied to.

Crucially, it’s not a good idea to rely on the market for essential services because the market, upon which choice is based, is not especially reliable. Businesses fail all the time. Food trucks can drive away and park on a different street if that street offers a better chance of making a profit. If you are relying on that food truck for lunch, however, you will go hungry. It’s not the responsibility of the food truck to make sure you get something to eat for lunch.

But it is the responsibility of states to provide a free and adequate education to the citizens of that state. I’m willing to take a chance on a food truck for lunch, but I am not willing to take a chance on my kid’s third grade year of school. Or his fourth grade. Or fifth. Overall, the education models based on choice--charter schools and voucher programs--are not delivering satisfactory results for students and families. Look at Michigan; look at New Orleans; look at Milwaukee.

Charter schools do not have the same level of oversight as traditional public schools. They may be able to operate at a lower cost because they are not required to hire certified teachers, for example, but this decrease in oversight comes at a cost to students. Charter schools can also be selective when it comes to choosing their student body. Even if they don’t exclude people on paper, they can do it in other ways, such by requiring expensive uniforms to enroll. Or they encourage students who require more support to leave the school by threatening to note various issues on the student’s permanent record. Charter schools are not required to offer the same kinds of accommodations for students with special needs. If you require those services, you’ll have to go to the public school. But those public schools are being systematically underfunded because new charter schools are siphoning off the money.

Charter schools also tend to lack accountability: many charter school board meetings are not open to the public, thus lacking transparency. In addition, many lack the typical avenues for input from parents. All these factors make charter schools less stable in the long run. Charles Payne argues that one of the most important factors in creating a strong school is trust. Trust takes time to build and the charter school model does not facilitate this important factor in school success.

Although charter schools (for the most part) are not delivering better academic outcomes for students, they are delivering other things: 1) For people in other countries who would like to come to the U.S., for example, opening a charter school offers a way to get a visa. 2) For people interested in undermining teacher's unions, charter schools typically function without them, although recently some charter school teachers have been advocating for unionization. 3) Most importantly, charter schools provide an avenue through which operators can get their hands on public money and use it in less scrutinized ways. This creates an ideal environment for the misuse of funds.

In my opinion, though, the strongest argument against charter schools comes from the school districts where parents aren’t clamoring for school choice. These are the districts where the public schools are not chronically underfunded. These are districts that provide parents with stable, nearby schools that offer children solid academics and lots of extracurriculars. These are districts that don’t use a test score to determine who reliably gets access to a quality education. Stable, strong communities are saying “thanks but no thanks” to charter schools’ instability and their failure to serve every student.

To Bill Gates and the Walton Family and all the other deep-pocketed folks who are well-meaning and care about kids and their educational outcomes: please stop buying into the charter school and voucher rhetoric. Use your checkbooks and your clout to help school districts fully fund the schools that they have.

There is big money in the charter school business and these folks do not want you to look behind the curtain of the rhetoric of “choice.” They are saying the equivalent of “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” as we speak. The stakes are too high to take their word for it.

If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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