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My limited understanding of public vs. charter schools

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I was a public-school educator for 34 years. While I recognize many of public education’s shortcomings, I am a staunch supporter. More than ever, I believe that this country needs its citizenry to be more than just educated, but also critical thinkers and lifelong learners.

Our country is a representative democracy dependent on leadership, and the direction for our country is placed in the hands of our elected officials who are our politicians. In our government, all leaders are politicians, but not all politicians are leaders. That would make a majority of our government officials, politicians and not leaders. Ideally, leaders make decisions based on the needs of the people. Politicians see the same problems and make decisions based on their needs, or the needs of their political party, or the party’s special interest supporters. This holds true for both political parties.

I first became aware of the charter school movement in 2004. It was my understanding that it was determined that public schools were not meeting the needs of students and people wanted an alternative, but they felt locked in to the public school system. Private and parochial school tuition were out of reach for many of these families. If I was understanding this correctly (not always a given), it seemed to me that the movement was taking place in urban districts, or more to the point, districts that were impacted by poverty.

An easy solution would be to attract businesses to move into the multi-million-dollar arena of education. Profit could be a great motivator to the right people in order to deal with these issues. To make it more attractive many of the restraints placed on public schools were waived for charters. The reason given was that these restrictions stifled innovation and charters needed to innovate. They never relieved the public schools of those same restrictions, but still blamed them for lacking in innovation.

Of course the cost of education could be reduced with the elimination of some of the more expensive components. The cost of educating students with disabilities is always a high-ticket item, so some charter schools develop admissions’ policies or other requirement that may exclude this student population. This may be different in individual states today.

Teacher unions insure fair pay and reasonable working hours for teachers, but charter schools can work union-free. To further make the transition easier, many politicians and business people began to target teachers and unions as the primary reason why these schools were failing. The perspective of the politicians was probably to get the costs down to make the problem more profitable for business. It had little to do with addressing the needs of schools in areas of high poverty.

Urban schools in areas of poverty have unique problems in great numbers. Most teachers are not prepared in their teacher courses to deal with the problems that they face in these schools. Problems of poverty, absenteeism, safety, hunger, violence, lack of support and overcrowding are not the topics of undergraduate education courses. They are also not the problems addressed by politicians and businesses. Business plans do not address tackling problems of education, but rather problems of profit.

In my limited and admittedly biased view of charter schools, I see them as massive siphons. They siphon money from public schools. They siphon young teachers to burn them out with long working hours and high demands. They siphon the good will and support of the public for public school teachers. They siphon any initiative to address the real problems of poverty on education. Of course this is a generalization. I am sure that there are some charter schools that are doing the right thing. If in comparing apples to apples, charter schools are not doing any better than public schools, why not concentrate on solving the problems of the public system instead of complicating the system for the sake of corporate profits?

Of course this is my limited understanding of public vs. charter schools. This is a topic that does not have a shortage of opinion. Please feel free to add yours here.

Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby) is an adjunct professor of education at St. Joseph’s College in New York. He came to that position after 34 years as a secondary English teacher in the public school system. He was recognized with an Edublog Award for the Most Influential Educational Twitter Series, #Edchat, which he co-founded. Whitby also created The Educator’s PLN and two LinkedIn groups, Technology-Using Professors and Twitter-Using Educators.