Sunday, April 15, 2007

A passionate and eloquent defense of charter schools

In late March, I sent out this notice:

Charter School panel in DC, 3/28

Anytime you see a forum and a series of papers called "Charter Schools: Keeping the Promise or Dismantling Communities?", you have a pretty good idea that it isn't going to be very favorable -- and a two-second skim of the papers confirms it.  I'm going on spring break tomorrow with my family for the next two weeks and don't want to get my blood boiling right now, so I'll leave it up to you to read the papers (I posted them at and attend the forum, which will be in DC on March 28th from 9-11:30am.  I share this because it's always good to know what critics of charter schools are saying -- it's much easier to defeat arguments when you know what they are!
I still haven't had a chance to read these white papers, but my friend Jeff Klaus did (he's a businessman from CT whose fiancee is Dacia Toll, head of Achievement First).  He shared the email he sent to the author of one of the papers, challenging her attack of charter schools (to read her paper, click on the link above and go to page 55).  It's one of the best defenses of charter schools I've ever read and he gave me permission to share it:
Dear Ms. Dingerson,
I read with amazement your article about the charter schools of New Orleans.  Without calling into question your strong bias against charter schools, could you at least pretend to be objective when issuing a "scholarly" paper?  The piece is filled with subjective and derogatory commentary based on nothing other than, well, nothing.
Clearly you believe that there is some vast right-wing corporate conspiracy which intends to dismantle public education and resurrect in it's place I don't know what.  What do you think all of these evil corporate philanthropists want?  I am really interested in what you think are the objectives of the dark side. 
Do you reject the notion that we have an inexcusable achievement gap between children of color and white children, and between poor families and middle-upper class families?  You seem to dwell a lot on equity, but isn't it equitable and fair to allow poor parents of color to have access to the same kinds of educational quality and choices that middle and upper class white parents have for their children?  Do you not understand that there is a high correlation between college attendance and higher income over a career, and that this is the only way we can hope to eradicate poverty, and that the best charter school management organizations (KIPP) are delivering kids prepared for college?  Perhaps you don't believe that high performing charter organizations deliver better results.  I want to understand where the breakdown in logic occurs for you.
You say that Alcee Fortier high school was "beloved", but it was also one of the state's worst performing schools. What important societal value did this school provide that trumped its inability to deliver a decent education?  For goodness sake, wasn't this the school where the 2003 class valedictorian had to take the state's graduate exit exam SEVEN times before finally passing?  What benefit did this school provide for this student or her parents?  What leads you to believe that any version of the pre-Katrina New Orleans public schools, resurrected or not, would be able to deliver on a promise of a decent education? 
As for charters, the results ARE mixed.  But at least they are mixed.  As a percentage of their respective populations, there are far more charter schools that are delivering excellent academic results for poor students of color than are the traditional public schools.  Another good thing is that from a governance perspective, charters are held accountable for results.  If a charter school does not achieve success educating their kids they can and ought to be closed.  Why shouldn't traditional public schools be held to the same level of accountability?
You seem to emphasize the notion of equity, or the lack thereof when it comes to charter schools.  You think that charters are delivering unequal education because it causes parents to have to choose, and that since there are enrollment capacity limitations it creates winners and losers.  It occurs to me that your logic is a bit like arguing against sending ANY rescue boats to pluck Titanic survivors out of the frigid water because there are not enough rescue boats to pick up ALL Titanic survivors at the same time!  Why do you think choice is bad, especially when you compare it to the alternative?
At the moment, charters as a group do deliver unequal education.  There are some children who do lose out in bad charter schools, but at least not all of them (like most of the students who attended New Orleans public schools district prior to Katrina).  The dynamism created by having both accountability and choice will, over time, work to deliver continuously improving results.  The stagnation of the New Orleans district pre-Katrina was like a swampy backwoods bayou, lots of still water not ever going anywhere.    
Jeffrey A. Klaus
New Haven, CT.

 Subscribe in a reader