Charter Me This, Batman: Faulty Comparison 3

In a stack of papers called Reform.

  • Feb
  • 27
  • 2006

School systems in other countries are better than that in America. That is spoken without due consideration to the myriad of other things that are different in a student’s life overseas and that may impact academic performance. Private schools perform better on standardized tests that public schools do. But with the ability to cherry pick students and refuse an education to those who do not want to play along with the school game, private schools are not even in the same ballpark as public schools; that they perform better should be expected, not celebrated. The latest thing, charter schools, presents another unfair comparison.

Not As Selective, But Still…

To many charter schools’ credit, reports show a student population as mixed at a charter school as at an average public school. The students at a charter school don’t tend to be at either extreme end of the spectrum; overachievers and at-risk students tend to show up in equal numbers.

On my KIPP visit, the numbers thrown out were that about 80% of students are on the free or reduced lunch program and about 20% of students come from a household with any kind of college education in their background. Remember that these were just estimates. Those numbers indicate to me a wide variety of the student population, not dominated by high or low achievers.

The One Big Advantage

Public school is a no-brainer for parents, something they don’t even need to think about once they’ve bought the house. What high school to attend? Before the baby is even born, parents know the answer to that simply by looking at their mailing address. Before the baby was even considered, the parents probably made this decision, as school test scores are taken into consideration in many a home purchase.

Generally speaking, transportation to the local public schools isn’t an issue as they are within a perimeter of a few miles. I walked 3 blocks to my middle school and rode my bike about 1 mile to my high school. Even when parents do have to drive their children to school, it’s often on their way to work and not a terrible inconvenience in the grand scheme of things.

What charter schools have, without exception, is built-in parent interest in their child’s education. That interest is necessary to even know about the charter school’s existence, let alone the admissions process. Think about this: do you know where the local charter schools are? I’ve heard that there is a KIPP school in San Jose and I had no idea before another teacher told me.

By the very virtue of the fact that the student is being sent somewhere other than the school down the street, parents indicate that they care about education enough to explore options. Certainly, parents of students in public schools may have done the same thing and decided on the public school system; there are those that believe in public school education and see it as a better alternative. It is possible that public schools have just as many motivated parents as charter schools. But being a parent of a charter school student means that you are a parent who has necessarily explored options. It’s not only possible that you have looked at alternative houses of education, you simply must have done so. Those parents of students in public schools may not have been motivated or informed enough to look around; that means a very different environment at home, a huge factor in academic performance.

That’s What I Want

Even with charter schools, money is an issue. It almost always is.

Charter schools can charge tuition. This adds another layer of parent interest. You were interested enough to examine what options you had about where your child will get an education. Are you interested enough to pay for it? If you are, this is another step removed from the parents of most public school students. It also means that your household values education, literally. Education is important enough to shell out some hard-earned cash in addition to the hard-earned cash you already hand over to education via taxes.

If you are a parent willing to plunk down anywhere from $1000 to $10,000 a year for your child to attend school and get an education that would otherwise be free, I’d say that’s a bit more of an interest than most parents of students in public school. Parents of public school students may be interested in the education their children receive, but it says something when you’re willing to put your money on the line and pay tuition.

And charter schools are unfettered when it comes to soliciting donations. At the KIPP school I visited, the amount of money they have to spend per pupil is doubled by the donations they collect. This is both because they have the ability to scrounge up those donations and because their schools are smaller than the average public school. Due to the low numbers for whom they need to provide, the amount they need to gather is manageable.

I Believe The (Numbers Of) Children Are Our Future

A very quick point should be made about the size of the student population.

My school serves 2,500 students and we were built for 1,800. All schools in my district are well over 1,000 in student enrollment, with most schools right around 2,000 students large.

In the District of Columbia, there are 34 charter schools serving 14,000 students. That means that, on average, a school has only 334 students. The KIPP school I visited in San Francisco has about 180 students; there is a charter school in Florida that has about 180 students, too. That’s roughly the same number of students as I see in a single day, by the way. The average California charter school holds 332 students; Arizona, 173; New York, 305; the national average size of a charter school is 250 (US Charter Schools, NCREL).

This small school size is usually as much true for private schools as it is for charter schools. I wonder if this is the case for schools in other countries, too? If that’s a common denominator for all the schools so many folk think are better than public schools, we should be examining that. Perhaps that’s an explanation, not just a coincidence.

What Does This Show Us?

We cannot underestimate the impact of parent interest on the way students view their own education. Parents have an obligation to communicate to their children that education is important and should be taken seriously. Far too many parents do not have any way to send that message because they are too busy, uninformed, detached, disenfranchised, or truly do not see the value of education, likely an effect of their parents’ view of education.

Maybe we’ve given the public school system more than it can chew; maybe it’s the fact that public schools have promised an education to all that’s causing them to perform so poorly; maybe public schools, yes, even public schools, need to be more selective in the students they educate, causing a variety of student-specific public schools to pop up. Maybe it’s the wide variety in student needs that’s killing public schools. Maybe it’s just too damn much to do.

1 comment

1. Clix says:

[12/17/2007 - 3:41 am]

This is precisely my issue with charter schools: they would not work nearly as well if they were simply assigned a mix of students. Poverty has far less influence on a child’s success in school than parent involvement.

I’ll be interested in seeing how this works out.