More on Charter Schools
by Geoff Schutte
Recent attempts to paint public charter schools as private enterprises promoting a corporate agenda fundamentally misconstrue intentions and reality, polarizing an issue that demands true and open discourse. To be clear: The vast majority of public charter schools cannot and do not make profits, and recent legislation has been passed to ensure that no new charters can be for-profit. Public charter schools, overseen by nonprofit organizations or local community boards and held accountable by the State Education Department, represent an alternative public option to what is generally considered a failing Buffalo education system. As a current teacher at a highly successful Buffalo public charter school, and a former teacher at a failing Rochester public school, I have seen both ends of the urban school experience. In neither case, however, were profits, corporate agendas, or privatization a part of it (nor should they ever be a part of “public” education—let’s all agree on this).
In his recent letter to Artvoice, “The Case Against Charter Schools,” Max Grundy attempts to deconstruct the argument for charter schools by theorizing a “school-for-profit scheme” that underlies the intentions of the charter school movement. For possessing what seems to be an intelligent and complex understanding of the current education system, Mr. Grundy somehow misunderstands one of the basic premises of charters: that they are public schools, using public money, educating some of our most under-served kids. The only element of the “exclusive nature of charter schools” is that there are only so many of them and the waiting lists are long. Furthermore, the only “control” charters have over their student population is the blind luck of the lottery system (compared to the exclusive nature of public schools like City Honors, Performing Arts, DaVinci, and Hutch-Tech).
Ironically, one of the most innovative and exciting recent developments in the local education reform movement is precisely what Mr. Grundy attempts to demonize. The Westminster Foundation, a partnership with M&T Bank, Westminster Charter School, and the Buffalo Public School District, was recently awarded a $500,000 federal grant to develop a “promise neighborhood,” a comprehensive model of confronting urban poverty that many believe to be the future to true poverty reform. (Thus far,M&T has made no demands on its family “customers” to openM&T accounts!)
Thankfully (and ironically), Mr. Grundy redeems himself through all of this by ultimately arguing for the exact reason we have charter schools to begin with. Charter schools exist as a public option to the failing realities of so many of our urban public schools. They exist to prove that you can successfully educate children in poverty; that a 50 percent dropout rate is not acceptable (75 percent if you are a black male); that all students deserve an opportunity to succeed; that all parents, whatever their situation, care and can be partners in a child’s education given the appropriate support and a nurturing community. (Let’s end the ridiculous and thoroughly baseless claims that somehow only caring parents choose charters and the rest get dumped into public schools.) Buffalo’s public education system absolutely needs an overhaul (as Mr. Grundy rightly points out), and successful charter schools—some run by nonprofits, some by the district, and some by independent boards—offer hope and proof that with the right people, the right resources, and the right structure, schools can successfully educate kids from our poorest neighborhoods. The existence of this hope, much of which comes from the success of charter schools, is why we are having this debate to begin with.
A robust debate around reforming our public schools is absolutely what is needed right now, and the arguments laid out on the pages of Artvoice and other media sources in Buffalo, as well as attempts by organizations like Buffalo ReformED to invigorate public discourse, offer hope that education will be a major topic of discussion within the Buffalo community in the months and years to come. For this, Mr. Grundy’s contribution should be commended. However, misinformed attempts to polarize the debate through fear-mongering and ill truths do little to encourage debate. Public charter schools in Buffalo and throughout New York State are not attempts to privatize education—nothing could be further from the truth. They are genuine public attempts—open and accountable to all—to create good schools, something the city of Buffalo sorely lacks, and something all of our students and families deserve.
Geoff Schutte, Buffalo English teacher at Tapestry Charter High School.
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