The Problem with Charter Schools: courteous conversation #4

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For a lot of us choosing the right school for our children is an important and stressful question. We even buy houses based on school districts. This is a choice that could determine the future success of our children. So it’s no surprise that people have strong feelings around this topic. To David, charter schools offer some attractive alternatives, but Maura-Lee has large reservations.

In this podcast, David and Maura-Lee discuss the pros and cons of charter schools in Nashville. David, a tepid supporter of charter schools, interviews Maura-Lee, a union representative and proponent of “community schools.” In brief, Maura-Lee opposes charter schools for the following reasons:

  1. They tend to neglect students with the most needs through selective recruiting and expulsion.
  2. They bleed public schools of funding and engaged parents.
  3. They treat their employees badly, which leads to burnout.
  4. They increase teacher turnover (often relying on programs like Teach for America), which not only negatively affects students, but removes middle class jobs from the community.
  5. They fail to provide wrap-around services.
  6. They lack public accountability to taxpayers and elected officials.
  7. They use rigid discipline systems that do not address students’ underlying social-emotional needs.

Many of these concerns have racial overtones, and Maura-Lee insisted that addressing issues of racial and socioeconomic inequity were fundamental to this discussion, even though they are often masked or ignored in discussions of education policy.

Although she obviously has a fairly lengthy list of grievances, Maura-Lee does not disagree with the concept of charter schools so much as she thinks that the way they have been implemented is problematic, leaving room for charter schools that are thoughtful and intentional in avoiding some of these issues.

One of the most interesting concepts that surfaced in this conversation was the idea that what is best academically may not be what is best for the community. A school run by high-achieving and well-meaning temporary residents (think TFA teachers) might, for example, increase test scores for students but actually harm the local community. This raises questions about the scope and purpose of schools, the metrics we use to assess and compare them, and fundamental conceptions of goodness and society.

Maura-Lee also questioned an excellence-seeking paradigm common among parents: Who is the best teacher? Which is the best school? How can I give my child the best opportunities? Laughing, she suggested we might do well to occasionally embrace mediocrity. Learning to live with average people is, after all, what most of life is made up of. Here’s an article with more on that.

In the comment section, feel free to raise questions or comments about any of the ideas discussed in the podcast. And remember to try out your own courteous conversation. If you are a charter school opponent and found yourself agreeing with everything Maura-Lee said, consider finding a proponent of charter schools and interviewing them.

Here’s a list of other Courteous Conversation topics


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