Charter Schools: Support Them or Not – They ‘Get Things Done!’
by Josh Randle
It’s my pleasure to report that the charter school movement is alive and thriving today in America. According to the Center for Education Reform, 3,977 charter schools opened across the nation this school year1. That’s an 11 percent increase from the 3,600 schools that operated in 2005-06. Now, that’s some exciting news for today’s youth. But the charter school movement is not just any movement – it’s a revolutionary movement! It’s a movement that I wholeheartedly support - and here’s why.
We are in an age where the public education system is simply failing our youth; where the No Child Left Behind legislation – albeit, the largest education reform in our nation’s history - is being mocked and laughed at; where tenured teachers consistently underachieve and under-perform, yet remain in positions while pathetically attempting to educate our youth; where illiteracy climbs high among adults because the education of their youth failed them; and where more than one out of every four high school freshman in our country dropout before they graduate. The fact is that our public education system isn’t just failing – it’s broken altogether.
So, how do we fix this broken mess that we call our public education system? Who knows. But what I do know is that something radical needs to happen, and happen quickly before we lose entire generations to poor education. I am not saying that charter schools are the answer, but at least the architects of charters have stepped up to the plate to offer some sort of remedy.
Now, let me qualify charter schools. Charter schools are nonsectarian public schools of choice that are freed from the very rules, regulations, and statutes that have stymied the potential of traditional public school education, and bring forth an ideology that not only serves the education needs of our youth, but offers them real opportunities at success2. Charter school organizers launch these new schools for a number of reasons. Whether it’s to improve public education or it’s to address an unmet community need - charters are unique, innovative, competitive, accountable, and steadfast in their resolve to create change and provide a quality education for youth.
A Voice for Advocacy
Now, it’s obvious that I am an advocate for charter schools. But that’s not because I am some sort of pedagogical expert that has spent years in academia researching and analyzing our country’s education system. No, that’s not the case at all. The truth is that my advocacy stems from the knowledge that I have gained from the experiences that I’ve had with the public education system. Although the time that I spent in the system was short, it was no less enlightening.
From 2000 to 2001, I served as an AmeriCorps Member and tutored 9th-12th graders at an international high school and traditional public school in the city of Buffalo, New York. During my short tenure as a tutor, I witnessed some truly disheartening things and realized that serious needs were being unmet. Underprivileged, impoverished, and economically depressed students were being left behind. Teachers were horrifically unqualified and lacked passion, dedication and commitment. Administrators were frustrated by a system that bound their hands, tied their feet, and prevented them from being catalysts for youth education. Resources were available but appallingly mismanaged. And the presence of an overly-powerful union created an environment fit for a revolution – not an education.
At that same time, more than 70 public schools, and less than a handful of charter schools, were serving some 65,000 students in the city of Buffalo. But those students were not being served effectively. In one of the most segregated school districts in the nation, where more than 82% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch, the Buffalo City school district boasted that 50% of its high school freshman dropped-out before graduation3. These aren’t the numbers of a healthy education system; they’re the numbers of a system suffering from an ill-fated education epidemic. But for years, change agents from the education and business realms, concerned and dedicated citizens from the private, nonprofit, and public sectors, had already started formulating plans to launch a charter school movement. They were geared and ready for change, and decided to drive forward in an effort to provide a cure for our dying system. Now, some 6 years later, I am pleased to report that there are 16 charter schools serving more than 5,500 students in the city of Buffalo. Even more pleasing is that the Buffalo News reported that charter schools are greatly outperforming their public school colleagues. Although these reports aren’t necessarily the answers to our system’s problems, at least they reflect that charter schools are ‘getting things done’ for the greater good of our youths’ education.
And let’s talk about cost, shall we. Many charter school adversaries claim that charters take resources away from regular public schools, and that children who go to regular public schools receive less support and fewer resources. Well that’s just illogical and nonsensical. There just isn’t enough data to support such claims. What we do know is that there is more than $411 billion pumped into public school education each year4. So, can one honestly believe that the less than 4% of those resources that are used for charter schools (which are usually new resources and not redirected resources) are wasted and take away from our youth? And how are resources taken away, when the resources are still going towards our youth and towards education? The fact is that charter schools are really no more costly than regular public schools – although opponents would like you to believe that they are.
Another dose of truth - especially for those who oppose charter schools - is that the public education system is now becoming a joke. In fact, you may be reading this and feel somewhat insulted by what I have written because, as a product of public education, you believe that the education that you received from public schooling was wonderful. Well, let me agree with you - I’m sure it was! But the gross reality is that, if you are reading this article, then you probably received a good education, and maybe from a public school. But that’s not only because you were privileged in your youth and provided an opportunity for a good education, but it’s because you are actually able to read what I have written to you. That’s the stark truth – like it or not. If you are illiterate, then you can’t learn, and thus, becoming educated is next to impossible. AND IF you can’t read and write, then it’s very likely that education has failed you. BUT IF you can’t read and write, and have also slipped through the many cracks found in our public education system, then it’s entirely possible that the system is not only failing just you, it’s failing everyone, and failing altogether.
But what does literacy have to do with it? Problems such as poverty, crime, and unemployment, cannot be solved in our country without addressing the need for people to have strong reading, writing, and math education in their youth. Today, more than 70 percent of the population of U.S. state and federal prisons are people who can barely read5. Coincidence? I think not. The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy released in December 2005, estimated that 11 million adults in the U.S. are illiterate, while another 30 million – 14% of the total adult population in the U.S. – are literate to a “below basic” level6. Additionally, an estimated 30 million people over the age of 16 in the U.S. struggle to read a newspaper article and have difficulty using a printed bus schedule to travel across town7. Even more disheartening is that, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 90 million Americans (31%) demonstrate low rates of literacy8. Coincidence again? Hmmmmm….you be the judge.
So, what’s the real issue here? Do people really believe that charter schools aren’t working, and that they are actually part of the problem? What other options do we have? Better yet, what other options do our nation’s youth have? Today, there are almost 52 million youth in grades K-12 receiving an education. Of the 52 million students, about 48 million (92.3%) are enrolled in one of the 94,112 public schools nationwide. Approximately 1.15 million (2.2%) of the 52 million students are enrolled in one of the 3,977 operating charter schools in the nation9. And, although, charter schools make up only 4.2% of all public schools in the U.S., people still come out against them.
Now, charter schools may not be the end-all, be-all solution to our nation’s public education woes; but at least they are in the ring, fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves and providing a voice while the cries for a fair and good education go unheard. Regardless of whether or not you support charter schools, you must ask yourself a few simple questions: If not charter schools, then what else? And if not now, then when?
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Center for Education Reform (2006, September 19). Charter Schools Number Nearly 4,000 Nationwide
[iii]Division of Local Govt. Services and Economic Development Report. Office of the New York State Comptroller
[v]National Forum on Education Statistics
[vi]ProLiteracy Worldwide. The State of Adult Literacy 2006. pp.5-6
[vii]ProLiteracy Worldwide. The State of Adult Literacy 2006
[ix]Center for Education Reform (2006, September 19). Charter Schools Number Nearly 4,000 Nationwide