Feature

Debating Charter Schools: Why I Don't Support Charter Schools

by PAUL M. HEWITT

EDITOR’S NOTE: Although Paul Hewitt and Robert Maranto are fellow faculty members in the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas with office doors 25 feet apart, their views on the merits of charter schools could not be more disparate. Hewitt, a former superintendent in Northern California, teaches in the educational leadership program; Maranto holds a chair in leadership in the department of education reform.

Engraved on a bronze plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty is a poem by Emma Lazarus called “The New Colossus.” The poem gives voice to this most majestic lady and the ideals of our nation when it states: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” 

As an educator who spent more than 35 years in public schools, I’ve always felt this could well be the motto for our system of public education. I strongly believe charter schools are, by their very nature, organizations that exclude students and violate a most sacred ideal of our great nation.

Our public school system was conceived on the foundation of equality as a vehicle to provide cohesiveness in a diverse land. In the mid-1800s, Horace Mann established a system of common schools based on his concern with the separation of the social classes and the ethnic groups immigrating to America. He believed by combining the rich and the poor in one common school we could remove the injustices of social class conflict and have a common set of moral and political values. The charter school movement is producing a system completely counter to these democratic ideals.

Hewitt boardPaul Hewitt, who spent 17 years as a superintendent in Northern California, fears unhealthy consequences from the spread of charter schooling.

Jonathan Kozol, the noted author and civil rights advocate, called charter schools “the most segregated of all public schools. They should be called Plessy v. Ferguson schools because they have taken us back to the doctrine of separate and equal.” Many of the more high-profile charter schools, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program schools, are located in inner-city areas where they are populated largely by one racial group, primarily African-American students.

Conversely, it is not difficult to find charter schools located in ethnically diverse areas where the ethnic breakdown of the students at the charter school does not represent that of the community in which it is located. When we throw in tuition tax credits, open enrollment and home schooling, we put together a perfect system for maintaining segregation by ethnic group and economic class in our society.

False Assumptions
High-quality education for everyone must be our prime goal, and the proponents of charters are constantly touting their educational effectiveness and superiority to the local public schools. In almost all cases, the research to support this claim of superiority is technically flawed or based on false assumptions (see http://nepc.colorado.edu.)

Those of us who have worked in the public school system realize a world of difference exists among students of the same ethnic group. Some students are highly at-risk and live in a dysfunctional single-parent home. Using what is called open enrollment, charter schools often will restrict their enrollment to only those students who have a parent who will take the initiative to enroll the child and then commit to ongoing support and involvement in the school.

Public school teachers know that children with involved and supportive parents almost always will be more successful in school than their nonsupported counterparts. Charter schools that have highly rigorous and demanding programs will either scare away the most at risk or, if they should happen to enroll, they will quickly depart in a cruel game of Darwinian selection. Where do these students go? They return to the local public schools, which legally must accept them.

This practice is called “creaming” by Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System and once a high-level supporter of charter schools in the U.S. Department of Education during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Not surprisingly, proponents of charter schools vehemently argue this practice does not occur.

The Washington Post reported in mid-May that the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law filed a legal complaint against the District of Columbia Public Schools, alleging the city’s charter school system discriminates against students with disabilities. A similar legal action was taken by the Southern Poverty Law Center against the Louisiana Department of Education on behalf of thousands of students with disabilities who had been denied access to New Orleans’ charter schools.

When similar students are compared, charter schools match up poorly against their public school counterparts. In maybe the best study of charter school performance, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (http://credo.stanford.edu) at Stanford University examined charter school performance in 16 states, looking at 2,403 charter schools. The researchers matched students using multiple factors to ensure true comparability between the comparison groups. In math, only 17 percent of the charter schools exceeded their public school counterparts, while 37 percent posted scores that were significantly lower than the public schools.

Discriminatory Effects
Why are so many people jumping on the bandwagon to support charter schools when 83 percent of charters have not proven to be academically superior to the traditional public schools in their communities? Why are charters appealing when they tend to separate children by race and social class and when they subtly discriminate against the most at-risk youth in our society?

I would be the last person to contend that public schools are flawless. However, the charter school movement is not in the best interest of our nation. Our public schools were founded on an ideal of providing every student with an equal educational opportunity. Charter schools do not promote this ideal.

Paul Hewitt, a former superintendent, is an assistant professor of educational leadership at University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Ark. E-mail: phewitt@uark.edu