Michael Winerip's article in the New York Times this past Sunday has catapulted the New Jersey charter school wars into the national spotlight (follow the link for a great speech about charters from the ELC's Stan Karp).
This is welcome attention and due, in large part, to the tireless efforts of parents like Darcie Cimarusti and Julia Sass Rubin, among others. We teachers - and our unions - need to support these parents in their efforts against school privatization.
I must say that I find the paternalistic attitude toward these parents to be fascinating. Charter cheerleaders here in Jersey - like the Star-Ledger's Tom Moran and ACTING Education Commissioner Chris Cerf - love to sing the praises of the parental "choice" charters allegedly offer in the face of "failing" public schools.
I guess they think the many, many parents who are standing up and saying "no" to boutique charters in well-performing school districts are somehow naive: I mean, who wouldn't want privately run schools, unaccountable to local boards of education, to come into their towns and take money away from their kids' schools? Gee, it sounds like such a great deal...
The problem with the "choice" argument is three-fold:
1) It's not a choice when your local representatives do not have a say in the approval or management of a charter school. When a charter is shoved down a district's throat at the state level, the people actually paying the bills don't have a voice in process. If the district wants to host a charter, that's fine, but the community has to have a choice before any individual parents do.
2) It's not much of a "choice" when charter schools don't do any better - and in many cases, do worse - than the local public schools. And the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that charters are not even close to being a miracle cure for the alleged "problems" of our schools.
3) The unstated consequence of "choice" is at least some failure. The belief that charter students - or, for that matter, those who get vouchers - are somehow "saved" has a corollary: some students will not be "saved." And it's not just the ones left behind in public schools; it's also the children whose parents made the wrong "choice" and put them into a failing charter or private school.
The casual attitude toward this last point is more than a little disturbing. The free market is predicated on having both winners and losers; sometimes, however, failure should not be an option. We don't allow people to pick their own personal police force in part because the consequence of police that don't do their jobs is too disastrous for society. We don't allow the free market alone to weed out bad surgeons because people die when they pick the wrong one.
If you go out to a bad restaurant on a Friday night (as I did last week), it's disheartening and it costs you money, but you can move on. You'll never go back, the restaurant will close eventually, and that will be that.
Schools should not be run on this premise; every child gets one shot at an education, and it needs to be a good one. Free market principals should not apply because the stakes are simply too high.
Some in New Jersey have made the case that local control will make it too hard for charter schools to be established. Good - it should be hard to get a charter to run a school. Real estate agents have no business rolling the dice with children's lives, and no charter school should be approved without demonstrating both a great need and great chances of success. Running the gauntlet of both local and state approval is the best way to ensure that the charter process is both rigorous and fair.