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The Case Against Charter Schools

While the Buffalo charter schools continue to produce strong scores on standardized tests, the dark side of the charter school model is being ignored in our city’s fight to stay competitive. The movement toward charter schools is being propagated further by the federal incentives in Race to the Top. The Machiavellian argument that the test results justify the charter school model belies the fact that the implications of the model extend far beyond those test scores.

In her August 25 letter to Artvoice, “The Case for Charter Schools,” Katie Campos argues that “charter schools are providing a quality education in our neediest communities, and proving that every child, regardless of race and income, can succeed.” While noble in its pursuit, this argument is misleading. Every child is not accounted for due to the exclusive nature of charter schools. Limited enrollment, academic or behavioral issues, and even dress code expenses can be factors that exclude a student from charter schools. Ultimately, as a private enterprise, charter schools have direct control over who their student population is.

Campos writes, “Parents want the best education for their children, no matter what; parents are flocking to charter schools in their communities.” When parents actively pursue a better education for their children, they are demonstrating a movement that is needed across the board: stronger parental support. The demand for a limited number of placements in a particular charter school, again, means that there are students who are not being served.

Another concern with the privatization of education is the very nature of business. A business’s sole responsibility is the bottom line. There is something fundamentally and ethically wrong with a business model that uses children as a product to fill its coffers. Charter schools are funded, in part, by our tax dollars. Based upon enrollment, school taxes are taken from the public schools and given to the charter school. The other funding for the schools comes from private investors. Ultimately, the benefactor in this entire school-for-profit scheme is the investor. They are making money on our tax dollars.

In the grossest of circumstances, imagine that a charter school funded by XYZ Bank requires each of its enrolled families to open a savings account with the bank. To my knowledge, tactics like these have not been used, but business’s business is the bottom line. In the public education system, the investors are the taxpayers and the return is conscious citizens that contribute back into the system that educated them. An efficiently managed public education system benefits everyone equally. An education system run by Bank XYZ benefits everyone equally, but Bank XYZ more equally than others.

The argument that there is more accountability in the charter school model can readily be balanced by reforms in the public education system. There is anecdotal evidence from both public and charter schools that demonstrate broken systems. There are reports of charter schools altering test results, funds being misappropriated, and ineffective teachers and administrators keeping their positions. These are not problems that are limited to the public education system. Corruption can be found in any institution. Reform needs to be made in public education.

A complete overhaul of Buffalo’s public education system needs to take place, not an abandonment of it, making way for privatized education. Still, there are many lessons that public education should learn from the successes of the charter schools. Foremost are the decentralization of power and the elimination of micro-managing, district-wide. Charter school principals have the autonomy to implement policies and programs that are tailored to their school and their community’s needs. The lack of this autonomy among Buffalo Public School principals is clearly demonstrated in the process of hiring teachers. Principals from Buffalo Public Schools have very little say in who is on their staff. The hiring process is remote and centralized; administrators who do not have firsthand experience in the schools, and are unaware of the needs of a particular staff, school or community, choose the candidates. This example of centralization illustrates how principals are rendered powerless to change the culture of learning in their schools.

Making schools community-based and hiring principals that can manage their schools autonomously are major steps that the Buffalo Public Schools can make toward being an improved institution. Aspects of the charter school model should be borrowed, implemented and applauded. Perhaps public education needed the specter of privatized education to motivate reform. Whatever the case, let’s demand reform, elect competent leaders and support public education so that our children may open bank accounts wherever they choose.

Maximillian L. Grundy, Buffalo

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