I’ll continue throwing out suggestions for how Utah could most effectively spend its (inevitably limited) additional educational resources. But meanwhile, a debate over charter schools has been raging among the people commenting on this blog, and I can’t resist wading in.
Much of the argument centers on whether charter schools unfairly cherry pick students. It seems to me from the discussion, and from what I know of education law, that the answers are no, and yes.
No, charter schools can’t just choose their student body. Charter schools must offer open admission, although it’s true that they don’t need to accept all special education students. When demand exceeds supply, as it often does, the schools choose their incoming class by lottery. That’s the “Superman” those Harlem parents were waiting for in the now famous movie: a winning lottery number.
But yes, of course, parents who enter charter school lotteries are not going to be perfectly representative of parents in the community, or, more accurately, they are not going to be perfectly representative of the least responsible or involved parents in the community. Charter school lottery entrants want change, by definition, which means that they’re paying enough attention to know when their kids’ schools aren’t working. They take enough initiative to apply for an alternative school, instead of just putting their children on whichever yellow school bus drives down their street. Applying to a charter school doesn’t automatically brand them as helicopter parents – any more than choosing traditional public schools brands parents who pick this alternative as indifferent parents – but yes, charter school applicants are taking more initiative than some of the uninvolved parents that teachers have frequently complained about in comments on this blog.
(I’d just note that in my experience teachers complain as much, or more, about parents who constantly seek more information about, or influence over, what their kids are learning. But that’s a topic for another blog post.)
Of course, to use these allegedly unrepresentative involved parents as an argument against charters is to employ the logic of the least common denominator. If not all kids get to have involved parents, well, then none of them should get to enjoy the fruits of having involved parents. That is, of course, unless the involved parents are wealthy enough to afford private schools or real estate in the best school districts – usually, though not always, pretty expensive real estate.
Some charter supporters actually reverse this argument, and defend educational choice only for disadvantaged kids. I’m perfectly willing to start there, but I wanted to share a recent article that makes the case for offering more educational choice in “the leafy suburbs.” The author, Fordham Institute Executive Vice President and Hoover Institution research fellow Michael Petrilli, argues that conscientious parents who want to be involved in their children’s education also often want, well, very different things from schools.
Here’s my favorite part:
. . . forcing people to “go private” in order to get a customized education for their kids is not a great political strategy for building broad support for the public schools. When school levies come up for a vote, don’t districts want as many taxpayers as possible to have a direct stake in the outcome?
And “customization” is the real issue. Even in upper-middle-class communities, not all parents want the same things for their kids. From my own personal experience (Fordham is working on collecting more rigorous, non-anecdotal data—stay tuned for that), affluent parents break down into at least three groups:
Tiger Moms (and Dads), who want their kids pushed, pulled, and stretched in order to get into top colleges. They want gifted-and-talented programs in elementary school, lots of “honors” and Advanced Placement options in secondary school, and high-octane enrichment activities like orchestra, debate club, and chess teams. These folks have no patience for warm-and-fuzzy edu-babble; they want teachers who themselves attended elite schools and can help their charges attain the pinnacle of academic achievement.
Koala Dads (and Moms), who want school to be a joyful experience for their kids, big and little. They want lots of time for creativity, personal expression, social-emotional development, and relationship-building. Models like Montessori and Waldorf are catnip to these folks; they want teachers who can role-model a kind, soulful, tolerant, mindful way of living in the world—a sort of wisdom that goes beyond mere knowledge. They, too, aspire for their children to attend great colleges—but probably the liberal artsy/crunchy types.
The Cosmopolitans, who want their children prepared to compete in a multicultural, multilingual world. They want a language immersion program for their tots (ideally Mandarin, though they’ll settle for Spanish); International Baccalaureate (IB) starting in middle school at the latest; and at least one, if not several, overseas experiences in high school. They want multicultural, multilingual teachers—and aspire for their children to either run, or save, the world. (Yes, these are close relatives of the Tiger Moms—Madres Tigres you could call them.
Can one school meet all these demands? Should one school even try? Read on – it’s an intriguing article.