Blind Men and an Elephant: There are Multiple Arguments for Charters
Sixth grade students Miracle Roberson, left, Darion James, and Brianetay Martin, right, read during literature intervention class at ReNEW SciTech Academy, a charter school in New Orleans, Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014. Nine years after Hurricane Katrina, charter schools are the new reality of public education in New Orleans. The vast majority of public school students will be attending a charter school established by a state-run school district created in the wake of the storm. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Our nation’s current debate about charter schools resembles the tale of the blind men and an elephant. Each participant in the debate clings to a singular aspect of charter schools while failing to see the whole picture.
Yet it is the whole picture that provides the best opportunity for more children to get a good education.
Some leftists oppose all charter schools, claiming they are a corporate plot to destroy public education. More mainstream liberals view charter schools as an opportunity to try out innovations that can be transferred into the regular school system, but oppose efforts to use charter schools to replace the regular system.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten recently advanced the “incubator of innovation” argument. Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, a long-time supporter of charters, recently leaned in as well along the same lines. Under this view, the purpose of charter schools is to offer programs that supplement the offerings of the traditional system and to transfer lessons learned from charter schools into district-operated schools.
Entrepreneurial liberals, some with roots in Silicon Valley, specifically believe charter schools should replace, not supplement, failing urban school systems with a new differentiated system of public schools that prepares all children for college.
Many charter management organizations like KIPP and Uncommon Schools essentially operate under this theory. They are interested in creating as many good, new schools for kids as possible. In many cases, the people behind these schools are former traditional public school teachers eager to create the kind of innovative learning environments they wish they had when they started teaching.
Free market conservatives, on the other hand, are less interested in any of these debates. Instead, they see charter schools as a step toward a free-market, parent-driven system of choice and competition with public money but less public oversight.
Who is right? Like the blind men and the elephant, each argument touches on some element of the truth, but they are not mutually exclusive. In some communities, charters function well as a supplement to regular public schools. In Denver, for example, the superintendent and school board have supported the growth of charter schools as one of many strategies to improve education in their city.
In New Orleans, on the other hand, the regular school system was so bad and so corrupt that a massive overhaul was needed. Today, more than 90 percent of children in New Orleans now attend charter schools under the careful oversight of the state and by every important measure, the students are doing significantly better.
Other cities are somewhere in between. Washington, D.C., with 44 percent of the students in charters, is a good example of healthy competition between the traditional and charter school sectors. By most accounts, the competition has helped both sectors get better.
Others cities with thriving charter school sectors include Chicago, Los Angeles, Newark and New York, each of which is implementing a unique charter school model that meets the unique needs of its city. Based on an ambitious proposal from a local foundation, Los Angeles is currently debating an aggressive growth plan that could increase the percentage of students in charter schools from about 20 percent to 50 percent in a decade.
The strength of the charter movement is that it is flexible and can be adapted by communities to meet their own needs. That does not mean it is a free-for-all. Charter schools, after all, are public schools. They are publicly funded and the public has a strong interest in ensuring that every charter school is open to all and educates all students.
The public also wants its money spent appropriately, without waste and fraud. Basic requirements need to be in place for all charter schools, no matter which charter philosophy a city may be pursuing.
America has a long way to go before we can say all our children have the opportunity to attend a good public school that prepares them for success in life. High-performing charters are proving every day that they can get disadvantaged children achieving on a par with their high-income peers.
When you strip away all the rhetoric and ideology shaping the public debate around charters, the case for charters remains straightforward: the best of them work very well and parents clearly want options. All kids are not the same and all parents, regardless of income or race or background, should have the opportunity to find the right school for their child. For nearly 3 million students today, the right school is a charter school.