Charter Schools vs. Public Schools: Comparing Apples and Oranges

This is not another article bashing charter schools — far from it. They continue to thrive not only because of widespread dissatisfaction with public schools, but more importantly because they have duplicated the quintessential culture of education that I have advocated for (i.e., that student learning and subsequent success are possible when surrounded by support and commitment from all parties equally: the family, administration, teachers, and the community). I wrote about the limited success of Harlem’s Promise Academy, whose modest gains were only accomplished when health and other non-academic interventions were as equally emphasized as academic ones. This comprehensive approach is lacking in public schools; but even more so, the charter school culture of quality education over everything else reminds me of the singular focus of education in Asian cultures.

Public schools and charter schools should not be competitors in a zero-sum game. Though both are publicly funded, they are apples and oranges whose achievements cannot be compared, as most pundits are wont to do.

Charter schools may not have an admissions criteria (though parents must apply, and limited spots can be filled by a lottery), but they do have an unofficial one for retention, in the form of signed contracts. These agreements with parents (and/or students) are based on rules, obligations, and expectations to support children’s behavior and academic progression. They tend to be two to three pages and often specify expectations, such as committing to volunteer eight hours a semester, ensuring student punctuality, or even providing a conducive environment for doing homework. (See samples for Kingsley Charter School in Dekalb County, GA or Palm Bay Community Charter School in Florida.)

If the parent or child violates the contract (e.g. a parent fails to come in for parent teacher conferences, or a child repeatedly misbehaves), corrective action can be taken. If it doesn’t work, the child can be “asked” to transfer. That’s what happened to Matthew Sprowal, whose behavioral disruptions at Harlem Success Academy 3 Charter School in New York led to being counseled out. Though he has thrived at Public School 75 ever since, his mother Katherine was disillusioned by the fallout. Their painful experience was highlighted in the recent NYT article, Message from a Charter School: Thrive or Transfer.

In this way, charter schools are more specialized, much as Stuyvesant or Bronx Science are for the academically and mathematically ambitious or LaGuardia Arts for the creatively-inclined. Critics are incorrect when they argue charter schools “cherry pick” their students; in fact, they do not. But to stay, a student must have a relentless focus on academic learning and proper behavior based on these unofficial contracts. Though teachers work to correct any deviance, ultimately, maladjusted students will be referred elsewhere based on their needs — a thoroughly understandable solution to maintain the integrity of the school’s culture of education.

That is really the difference between them and public schools, which cannot counsel out students no matter how difficult or expensive they may be. In the end, because they serve different populations, one cannot make the argument that charter schools are, or are not, better than public schools. They are simply specialized, by serve disadvantaged students whose parents are motivated to change. It only becomes a zero sum game when dollars meant for general public schools are diverted to charter schools in the mistaken belief that their model should completely replace public schools. Who, then, will take on the difficult and the truly disadvantaged?

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