Are Charter Schools Good for Society?

The United States is undergoing cultural upheaval, yet within the traditional public school system, longstanding inequities remain. Some parents have sought out charter schools as an alternative in order to escape the ideological conformity they believe public schools now require. Others believe that their concerns are overblown, and that having any such choice would worsen inequities between white students and students of color. In this article, Managing Editor Simon Gilbert and Staff Writer Rowan McGarry-Williams evaluate the merits of giving parents the choice to pursue charter schooling.
James DailManaging Editor

FOR

The Atlantic recently published a lengthy examination of the changing pedagogical emphasis of public schools [1]. George Packer—recalling his family’s labyrinthian journey from private to public schools in New York—describes the permeation of social justice ideology not merely into lesson plans intended for elementary schoolchildren, but into how the entire school viewed its mission. One example detailed how a teacher implicitly shamed Packer’s son for being white. Another recalled the school making all of its bathrooms gender-neutral, even though the children were visibly uncomfortable with the change. 

These are not just anecdotes confined to one New York public school. The second largest teachers’ union in the country is actively training its members to become activists in the classroom [2]. California is explicitly using its public school system to push a political agenda—through the expansion of identity-centered curricula, through the exaltation of ideologically-charged texts as infallible truths rather than as examples of unorthodox historiography, through the treatment of radical activism as a legitimate and desirable form of learning—and many other states are not far behind [3].

The ideologization of traditional schools poses an existential threat to the fundamental purpose of learning. Math, science, reading, civics, art, etc. are the essential elements of schooling—that is, what we as a society are responsible for. We use public schools and their governing institutions to determine what we teach students in schools. But learning is not limited to schooling. Children also learn social mores, personal values, and other intangible skills necessary for a functioning citizen at home (although school may be an influence). When the dogma of social justice comes to the classroom—and social justice is a dogma, irrespective of its societal value—parents no longer have the same capacity to rear their children, who by definition are impressionable and trust their teacher as an authority.

As indoctrination becomes the norm in public schools, parents deserve the option to have their children taught in an environment uninfluenced by political activists. Private school is one route parents can take to regain control over how their children learn. But most Americans can’t afford private school [4]. Homeschooling, although easier now that it was before the internet, is still not a viable option for families where both parents work.

"The ideologization of traditional schools poses an existential threat to the fundamental purpose of learning."

In a country with exorbitant private school costs, where only 18% of parents could stay home for homeschooled kids [5], the only other option for parents who want to choose where and how their children are educated is charter schools. There is a copious amount of literature in defense of charter schools. I could argue that charter schools simply produce better results—especially for minority students—than traditional schools [6]. I could cite their dismal test performances or parents’ all-time-low confidence levels in the public school system [7]. I could point to teachers’ unions’ hegemonic role in American public schooling [8]. But I’d rather focus on the more novel threat of a public school system that prioritizes teaching political propaganda over useful skills and competence in the arts and sciences. 

Since most parents cannot afford private school or have the flexibility for homeschooling, charter schools are the primary option that allows parents to instill their own values in their children, as is their right. While some charter schools will cling to state-sanctioned dogmatism, many will not. Parents who prefer leaving politics and values to the house will then have the option to send their children to a school with their desired curricula without having to worry about burdensome costs.

This argument is to say nothing on the merits of social justice. Nor does it degrade parents who wish to instill progressive values in their children either at home or at school. A charter school-dominated educational regime would allow for a diversity of teaching and administrative styles. Ironically, charter schools, less constrained by both the requirements and limitations of each state’s Department of Education, have the option to frame learning through progressive politics. With charter schools as the hegemonic model of learning, social justice could flourish in many of America’s schools. The only difference—the crucial difference—is the lack of state coercion in how children taught.

Social justice is hardly the first fad in American public schools, and doubtless be the last [9]. In his piece, George Packer identifies the conflict between two ostensibly American ideals—democratic ethos and meritocratic excellence—at the heart of the charter school debate. Proponents of traditional public schools often point to how they imbue a sense of democratic character in students. When progressive politics become fundamental to schooling, the healthy sense of equal opportunity public schools were created to uphold are replaced by a more pernicious desire for total social equity. Charter schools, on the other hand, value meritocracy over leveling (one could make the argument, rightly, that charter schools do more for equality of opportunity in America than traditional public schools) [10]. An educational system that embraces charter schools for the sake of expanding parents’ choices embodies another American ideal: pluralism.

Simon GilbertManaging Editor

AGAINST

Charter schools dominate today’s education reform agenda. These schools are funded by the government but are run by private citizens and groups under the terms of an approved charter. Some charter school advocates claim that charter schools are a necessary alternative to a public school system that, in their view, has overcommitted to the objectives of equity and social justice. This perspective suffers from two primary flaws: first, our public school system is no paradigm of equity or progressive overreach. Just the opposite: it remains deeply separate and unequal. Second, charter schools already tend to entrench racial and economic inequality in our school system. Thus, charter schools should not be receiving fewer equity mandates; they should be receiving more

Those who argue that charter schools are needed as a counterweight to equity-obsessed public schools miss a key fact: the American public school system has a crisis of inequity. Desegregation peaked in the late 1980s, and public schools have rapidly re-segregated since then. The number of schools that enroll over 90% of either non-white students or white students has more than tripled since 1988, and the average black student attends a school with a percentage of other black students nearly six times higher than the average white student [11]. The crisis is often deepest in large, supposedly liberal bastions. One half of black students in Chicago, one third of black students in New York, and 30% of Latinx students in Los Angeles attend “apartheid schools” in which whites make up less than 1% of students [12]. This segregation is rooted in public policy. Examples include nation-wide housing policies that made suburbs and specific neighborhoods the explicit domain of whites, as well as the Supreme Court’s recent rejection of voluntary integration plans [13].

However, segregation is not the only crisis of inequity in American public schools. Local property taxes remain the fundamental mechanism of school funding, a system that produces inequitable per-pupil funding. Many states attempt to minimize this spending gap, but the end result tends to be a flat or even regressive funding structure [14]. Housing policies like rigid zoning ordinances lock poorer residents into separate neighborhoods—and thus separate neighborhood schools. When this fails, school choice plans such as complicated weighted lotteries and open enrollment plans favor affluent families with the time, social capital, and transportation capacity to leverage the system and drive their children across cities [15]. School discipline policies and special education systems are similarly stratified by race and class [16].

"[C]harter schools already tend to entrench racial and economic inequality in our school system."

 Yet in spite of all of this, critics continue to argue that public schools are too focused on equity. Take, for instance, a recent article in The Atlantic by George Packer, titled “When the Culture War Comes for the Kids.” Packer complains that New York schools—the most segregated in the country—have gone too far in pushing equity. Observing his son’s school, he is troubled when parents opt their kids out of standardized tests, lesson plans focus on slavery and Native Americans instead of America’s Founding Fathers, and the school makes its bathrooms gender neutral. Yet the racial bias of standardized testing in New York, where test prep has become a booming industry clustered in affluent areas, is reasonable grounds for opting out [17]. The gender neutral bathrooms are an outlier that is ultimately scaled back. And emphasizing the history of racism in America is necessary in light of its scarce presence in many curricula. Recent surveys [18] of teaching about slavery in public schools find that many textbooks whitewash its brutality, teachers often stage insensitive exercises such as mock slave auctions, and students know little about the institution’s features [19]. Most troublingly, Packer argues that a focus on integration and diversity is futile because “calling out racism and getting rid of objective standards won’t create real equality or close the achievement gap,” and it abandons “education based on real merit.” For one, Packer ignores the many studies showing a significant narrowing of the achievement gap in times of integration. Additionally, as long as the structural realities of New York—where the federal government backed loans in the suburbs contingent on the prohibition of black families, local officials brutally displaced those same families through “urban renewal,” and white parents have long resisted integration—go unchanged, objective test scores and a true meritocracy are impossible. Furthermore, equity in the charter system is far worse than in the public school system. A 2010 report from UCLA found that “charter schools make up a separate, segregated sector of our already deeply stratified public school system,” [20] while the Associated Press reported that in “school year 2014-2015, more than 1,000 of the nation’s 6,747 charter schools had minority enrollment of at least 99 percent, and the number has been rising steadily.” [21] Instead of letting charter schools off the hook for inequity, we should seek to emulate cities like San Antonio, where charter schools reserve half of their seats for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. [22] Ultimately, then, it is unnecessary to make charter schools a publicly funded way for parents to opt out of equity—affluent whites doing just that, with the help of government policy, has been the dominant narrative of the traditional public school system since its inception. Further using charter schools as a mechanism of injustice would only make matters worse, maintaining and deepening the inequities of American education. Instead, policymakers should recommit to the vision of public schools as a public good and focus on a regulatory structure that demands accountability and equity from a charter school sector that has thus far avoided both.

Sources and Notes

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/10/when-the-culture-war-comes-for-the-kids/596668/
[2] https://www.aft.org/news/teaching-members-become-activists
[3] https://www.realclearinvestigations.com/articles/2019/09/17/woke_history_is_making_big_inroads_in_americas_high_schools_120363.html
[4] https://www.capenet.org/facts.html
[5] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/09/24/stay-at-home-moms-and-dads-account-for-about-one-in-five-u-s-parents/
[6] https://reason.com/2019/07/11/de-blasios-hate-for-charter-schools-is-bad-for-america-terrible-for-new-york/
[7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2018/10/15/how-are-americas-public-schools-really-doing/
[8] https://spectator.org/63684_top-five-reasons-teachers-unions-need-change/
[9] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/01/cultivating-failure/307819/
[10] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/minority-and-poor-students-gain-from-charter-schools-study-shows/
[11] https://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/harming-our-common-future-americas-segregated-schools-65-years-after-brown/Brown-65-050919v4-final.pdf
[12] https://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/mlk-national/e-pluribus...separation-deepening-double-segregation-for-more-students/orfield_epluribus_revised_omplete_2012.pdf
[13] https://www.oyez.org/cases/2006/05-908
[14] https://drive.google.com/file/d/1BTAjZuqOs8pEGWW6oUBotb6omVw1hUJI/view
[15] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/25/us/san-francisco-school-segregation.html;https://cascw.umn.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Open-Enrollment-and-Racial-Segregation-Final.pdf
[16] https://link-springer-com.ccl.idm.oclc.org/chapter/10.1057/978-1-137-51257-4_2
[17] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/03/nyregion/nyc-public-schools-black-hispanic-students.html
[18] https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2019/08/28/teaching-slavery-schools/?arc404=true
[19] https://www.splcenter.org/20180131/teaching-hard-history#part-i
[20] https://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/choice-without-equity-2009-report/frankenberg-choices-without-equity-2010.pdf
[21] https://apnews.com/e9c25534dfd44851a5e56bd57454b4f5
[22] https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Federal_Role_School_Integration_REPORT.pdf

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