I'm not going to take Mike Petrilli to the woodshed for his horrifyingly honest piece in the New York Times because Sarah Blaine has already effectively voiced the appropriate outrage. You should go read her piece (and her blog should be on your personal blogroll). I'm just going to note that Petrilli reminds us of what we already knew.
Petrilli has always been pretty up front about this; Anthony Cody called him out on it a year ago. The whole point of school choice is so that select parents can get their children away from Those People.
You know Those People. Those Children are unruly, poorly behaved, badly dressed, generally uncouth. They make for a poor school atmosphere. They won't pull up their pants, or get off our lawn. They set a Very Poor Example for the other children. If we could just get our own exemplary children away from Those People, life would be so much better. Well, at least it would be so much better for us.
Schools are always blown along by the prevailing winds of the larger culture, and one of the prevailing winds these days is "I've got mine, Jack." Public education was established as a reflection of the US melting pot mentality, but we've put the melting pot away.
It's not that we want to go back to Separate But Equal. Our goal is Separate But Better.
As many folks have pointed out, school choice is not about families choosing schools as much as it's about schools choosing The Right Kind of Student. This dovetails perfectly with Free Market Forces, because the Free Market always demand that the least profitable, the least attractive, the least desirable customers be dumped.
I'm not going to pretend that all of us who work in public education love every single student who crosses our threshold. Every teacher has had at least one student in one class whose name on the absence list made our day a little bit more pleasant and less stressful. But that never changed our understanding of the public school teacher gig-- to educate every single student that was put in front of us to the very best of our ability. That's the promise of US public education-- that we will do the best we can for every single student that shows up on our doorstep. Public school, like home, is the place that, when you go there, they have to take you in.
Creaming hurts the fabric of society in other ways. Are there students who are brighter, faster, more dedicated than some of their peers? Of course there are-- and public school is a place where they learn to be leaders as they become part of the current that draws their less gifted peers forward. In the charter model, public schools loose their leadership even as they learn that they have no responsibility to anyone but themselves. I've got mine, Jack.
The fundamental promise of US public education is that we will educate every single child for as long as there are children in this country. The fundamental promise of modern charters, as deftly delineated by Petrilli, is we will educate the students we feel like educating for as long as it suits us to do it. That is probably the smallest promise that any culture has made to its children in the history of ever; even elite medieval schools promised to stick around till the job was done. Charters have tried to claim success by redefining success, and their new definition is tiny and unambitious.
This is also emblematic of another forgotten American promise. Modern charters are predicated on the idea that we will no longer try to fix things. They are predicated on the idea of "escaping" bad neighborhoods, bad conditions, bad poverty-- which of course means we have no intention of addressing those issues. We are standing in front of a burning building with no intention of putting the fire out. We're just going to rescue a few kids. The right kids.
Charter fans like to bill them as engines of innovation, cutting edge schools that will lead us on a new path. That's baloney. If you want a big, expansive, ambitious, audacious, bold promise, nothing beats "We will be here to educate every single child in America just as long as their are children in America." There is nothing bold, ambitious, or cutting edge about promising, "We will be here to educate a few select children as long as it's convenient and profitable for us." There is nothing forward-thinking about saying, "If a child is hard to teach, we'll get rid of him."
Petrilli doesn't just reveal that the modern charter movement is ethically empty-- he shows that its stunted, small, unambitious, and a betrayal of the American promise.