Over at redefinED, a reliable source of reformy pro-school choice arguments, Patrick Gibbons (also a reliable source of pro-school choice arguments) has posted a pretty thoughtful response to the can of worms opened by the Washington state smackdown of charter schools.
In "Common schools and the feat of diversity," Gibbons takes a look back at the actual history of common schools in the US, in particular focusing on how many ways those schools have failed to live up to the promise of public education in this country.
Yet Mann’s common school concept remains a source of conflict today. The ethical and moral lessons of students in a one-size-fits all environment have created a battleground in the American culture wars, from book banning, to the fight against communism in the 1950s, to the fights over textbooks and the Common Core standards.
In this, and in shared criticism that common schools have to often (and still in some places today) reflect the racism and classism of their communities, Gibbons has a point.
But in his suggestion that charters are the solution, he is indulging in a fantasy far more reality-deficient that any "romantic vision of free, universal public education."
Gibbons repeatedly slides in the notion that public schools are one-size-fits-all. That's hugely arguable-- most public schools allow a wide variety of students with a wide variety of interests and skills to pursue a wide variety of goals. It is precisely because public schools are NOT one size fits all that the one size fits all reformster ideas one size fits all standards and one size measures all testing have been such fruitless failures.
But even if we were to stipulate to public schools being one size fits all, how can charters possibly be held up as an alternative? Charters are frequently constructed as one size fits some, and only those some are welcome to attend. Nor do they make educational options available to all-- not even close. Charter school systems have been constructed in such a way as to abandon many students to the schools that have, in the process, been stripped of resources. Meanwhile, charter students must select one and only one alternative with little or no room for diversity under their roofs.
A public school is like a department store where students can select a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Do you want to play sports, sing in a choir, prepare to become a doctor, and develop your love for literature while finding your way to teachers whose temperament and style matches your own? You can do that, or any other number of combinations, in a public school. But charter schools are often conceived as boutique shops that sell one product, and one product only, while serving only one narrow kind of customer. Part of the point of diversity in schools is to bring together students from many backgrounds. Some urban schools fail to move toward this goal, but charters are deliberately designed to move away from it.
Gibbons and charter advocates may argue that the sheer number and variety of charters provides the diversity, but in practice that's simply not true. Because it's hard to stay in business as a boutique, many charters don't offer anything other than the same general education as a public school-- just in a charter setting. But only for certain students.
Not all public schools have successfully embraced pluralism and diversity, but neither have charters, and while public schools have been steadily over the years changing and growing and working to embrace those qualities-- because that's what they're expected to and by law required to do-- there is no similar path forward for charters. Those fights that Gibbons references are the result of communities standing up to demand that their public schools reflect community values, while charters answer to nobody, not even the taxpayers who pay the bills.
Gibbons diagnosis of the problem is not entirely wrong, but his solution is no solution at all. Charters have accelerated segregation, drained resources from public schools serving the larger population, and tried to sort students into isolated, homogeneous silos. Common schools have not done a great job embracing diversity, but whatever value charters may add to a school system, it is certainly not their fostering of diversity.