Join the Conversation: Charter Schools

While we love boasting about the progress Urban School Foundation and its students have made here on our blog, we also feel it’s important to get more people involved in the conversation about education’s tough issues, to feature the benefits of entrepreneurship education, spotlight great entrepreneurs and their success stories and other topics surrounding the achievement gap in education and the chasm that exists between the opportunities afforded students in affluent neighborhoods compared to those in disadvantaged ones.

Education has been called the magic bullet – a way to solve poverty, grow the economy, improve our nation’s health, provide a means to better compete on the global scale and heal many more of society’s ills. However, the timeless question remains, “How should we reform education so it’s more engaging and effective?”

There are many ideas and challenges to reform that are being discussed, and I hope we’ll touch on them all at some point. READER WARNING! Full disclosure: as a former teacher  I have opinions on many of the topics we’ll be discussing, however I don’t think there’s a magic bullet to this magic bullet, and with this blog I’m hoping to offer an objective perspective on the ideas that have been floating around. I want your input and thoughts on the subject matter, and I’d like to start with a current hot button issue: public schools versus charter schools.

The idea that Charter schools could be the education system’s savior has been around for over two decades, but before we discuss charter schools it would help to clarify what the difference is between a public school and a charter school. Both types of schools receive public funding, but charter schools are not subject to some of the rules and regulations that apply to public schools. For example, charter schools can hire or fire anyone they want, can have a longer school day and other differences that mark them as independent of the public school system. In exchange they have 5 years to prove they can succeed in producing successful students or their charter will not be renewed and is closed. Charters can be founded and managed by parents, community groups, nonprofits, government agencies and even corporations. The most important difference is anyone can attend a charter school if they are accepted, and therefore provide parents an alternative to their public district school.

Last year was called the “year of the Education Documentary.” There were many documentaries made that addressed the serious issue of the deteriorating American education system, but Waiting for Superman drew the most attention nation-wide. For those of you who may not be familiar with the documentary, here’s a quick overview:


“Documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim explores the tragic ways in which the American public education system is failing our nation’s children, and explores the roles that charter schools and education reformers could play in offering hope for the future. …There was a time when the American public education system was a model admired by the entire world. Today other countries are surpassing us in every respect, and the slogan “No Child Left Behind” has become a cynical punch line.”

Both this film and another documentary called The Lottery focus on Harlem and the sharp contrast between abysmal public school performance levels and the success of charters like the Harlem Children’s Zone and Harlem Success Academy. These charters are raising the bar in every respect and achieving a standard of excellence in the communities that were written off long ago as impossible to turn around.

The main points that these movies seem to be making is that these charters have been successful for a few reasons; they have the freedom to create their own curriculum and to make necessary changes in the schools without having to wade through the bureaucratic red tape. Another central point, one that I will explore in more depth in future posts, is that charter schools are largely free from union interference. This is something that leaders of both charters have identified as key points to their success, because if they feel their teachers are not meeting their standards for an educator they can replace them with a better teacher.

The question both films ask the audience at one point or another is, if charter schools can produce this kind of educational success why don’t we have more charter schools? Even President Obama has addressed the issue, coming down on the side of more charter schools in cities across america. These movies raise this question by showing us how the current public school system is failing our children. Schools are graduating functionally illiterate students, a shocking number of city schools are averaging a 50% dropout rate or higher, giving some schools the name “dropout factories,” and many more startling statistics show the ineffectiveness of public education. Waiting for Superman even addresses the failures of schools beyond the inner-city, showing how many suburban, presumably successful, schools are also not meeting the needs of all their students.

As the viewer we’re along for the ride as we journey with five promising kids who are trying to get into high achieving charter school. Because there are more of these students than available seats at the successful charters, ambitious children like Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emil, must leave their hopes and dreams for a better education to chance in a public lottery. In the end we’re for those students whose names are called, and we’re disheartened when the other students were not so lucky. The most disheartening realization is knowing there are many more students and parents attending this lottery who share that disappointing experience – their name wasn’t called.

Both movies leave you with a sense of duty towards education reform, and both make the case that charters can be the answer. What do you think? Post your opinion about charter schools vs. public schools in your discussion forum.

This is just our first post on this topic. Keep an eye out for a followup posts on public school solutions and other issues affecting education.

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One response to “Join the Conversation: Charter Schools

  1. Pingback: Why does the US need education reform? A nation in crisis. | Urban School Foundation Blog

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