What exactly makes a charter school a charter school? What is it that charter supporters expect to get from a charter school that they cannot get from a public one?
Variety and choice?
Some advocates say that parents and students need choices, a variety, a plethora, a cornucopia of educational options from which to choose. We should have a sciency school for science students and a musicky school for musicians and a welding school for welders.
But we have that. In smaller districts, the possibility of magnet schools and specialty schools is lessened, but even in my mostly-rural county, districts have a co-operative vocational school that prepares welders and auto mechanics and security guards. Large urban districts can have all manner of specialty magnet schools that give students plenty of variety and choice. We don't need charter schools to accomplish this.
As I've argued before, people don't really want choice, anyway-- they want their children to go to one good school. Being "trapped in a zip code" never comes up when people have a school they like.
There's no arguing that some schools fail to live up to the promise of public education. But if you don't like the color of your house, do you paint the house, or do you buy a second house? If the school that I'm providing for my community's children is not doing a great job, sending some kids elsewhere will leave Sore Thumb High School still right where it is, doing poorly.
If I want it to be a better school, I can make it into a better school. This is what many communities have done over the years-- remade and reconfigured their local school to better reflect their desires at the time. We don't need charter schools to accomplish this.
Charter fans say, "Well, we can create schools that don't have to work under the weight of bad government regulations."
I say, "If we know they are bad regulations, why don't we lift them for all schools?" And if it's a bad idea to lift them for all schools, exactly why are they bad regulations? If there are regulations that are not good for education, let's get rid of them for everybody, and if they are good for everybody, then let's have everybody follow them.
We can fix stupid laws on the legislative level. We don't need charter schools to accomplish this.
Charter fans like the idea of schools that are non-union, non-professionally-trained teachers who can be paid by whatever mechanism and salary schedule. But in many locations, advocates have successfully imposed such ideas on the public system, with the dismantling of tenure, collective bargaining, and professional requirements to be a teacher. And local school districts are always free to negotiate whatever contracts the local market will bear. We don't need charter schools to accomplish this.
Free marketteers believe that if schools have to compete, that will drive them into paroxysms of excellence. But we already have competition between school districts-- in fact, competition between school districts is often a single factor in larger competition between communities. One of the ways that communities distinguish themselves as Better (and the houses therein more valuable and the neighborhood more desirable) is by making sure that the schools in East Egg are way better than the ones in West Egg. It is competition that has produced the very tyranny of the zip code that reformsters so hate. Because a feature of free market competition is that it has winners and losers, both in terms of producers and consumers.
We already have a school system handcuffed to a free market system of real estate. Schools already compete-- as best they can, given whatever local limitations they wrestle with. We don't need charter schools to establish a system of competition.
Doing more with less?
Do we need charters to show us how to do more with less? This is a non-starter. Plenty of public schools already have to do more with less every year, while charters frequently decide that the secret of success is more money. Next?
Laboratories of Innovation?
There is nothing to keep public schools from innovating and no signs that charters have discovered heretofore undiscovered revolutionary ideas in education. There is also nothing to indicate that public schools are not already filled with educators intent on finding new and better ways to do educate students. If you want to see more innovation, then by all means, rewrite the rules and regulations of public schools to reward or spur more such innovation.
But we don't need charter schools to accomplish this.
All right, this isn't even an advantage that charters claim they want, but it's one they're often accused of-- creating a school with carefully selected student body, with undesirable low-performing high cost students pushed out and desirable high-performing low cost students gathered in.
But this, too, is something we already do in public schools. Districts with magnet or specialty schools require students to move through an admissions process. And systems have an alternate education placement with students whose more severe issues, from autism to social maladjustment to developmental disability, make them a poor fit for the mainstream classroom.
We don't like to admit that we don't always take all comers in public schools, but we know how to be selective about who gets in the door and stays in the building. Some charters go much further, but the basic principle is the same-- public schools just don't fess up. Not that we should be proud of it, but we don't need charter schools to accomplish this goal.
So, really-- what do we need charters for?
Improvements in quality, choice, innovation, instruction, programs-- all of it can be accomplished in a public school system. All of these ideas for improving education could be applied to public schools, which would have the additional advantage of bringing the improvements to ALL students instead of a small group.
Of course, part of the challenge would be that changes and reforms would have to be discussed, debated and deployed publicly. A person who wanted, say, to subject non-wealthy non-white students to boot camp style No Excuses education would have to convince the taxpayers that it was a good idea. It's possible that only charters can provide an opportunity for one driven visionary to impose his or her ideas on a school without being answerable to anyone. But that would be less like a democratic institution and more like a small-scale dictatorship. It's not a very admirable goal-- and anyway, the invention of mayoral control has once again made it possible to establish small scholastic dictatorships without resorting to charters. This, too, we can accomplish without charter schools.
There isn't anything on this list of goals that we actually need charter skills to accomplish.
Is there any other goal I'm forgetting to-- oh, wait a minute.
Redirecting Tax Dollars
Charter schools do accomplish one goal that can't be achieved by public schools-- they manage to redirect public tax dollars into the pockets of private corporations, charter operating companies, corporate shareholders, and guys who just figured they'd make some money in the charter biz.
For everything else on the list, no charters are necessary. For everything else on the list-- well, imagine this: your car needs a new bulb for the headlight, has a flat spare tire, and is filled with discarded beer cans and McDonald's wrappers, and your mechanic says, "Well, obviously you have no choice but to buy a new car." And that makes no sense until you discover that the used car salesman is your mechanic's business partner.
The charter purpose that cannot be achieved by public schools is to move public tax dollars into private pockets. The one true difference between public schools and charter schools as currently envisioned is that only charter schools are making people wealthy. And if that's the only true thing different about charters, maybe we should stop talking about charters and start talking about fixing the issues-- the education-related issues-- that we really want to work on.