I Like Charter Schools. Kinda. Sorta

    I peeked in on my slumbering toddler one last time before I went to bed. As usual, Andrea was clutching her prized possession – a well-worn copy of “The Cat in the Hat” with which she had taught herself to read.

    I imagined that she really would grow up to be president. Or cure cancer. Or win a Nobel Prize. It’s an affliction that befalls nearly every parent. I succumbed too.

    Flash forward fifteen years. My little cherub was on a very different life trajectory. And there were no future worldwide accolades in sight. Hormones, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and garden-variety teenage angst make for a caustic stew. Going to school was not high on the list of priorities for a fragile young woman grappling with multiple social anxieties and serious mental illness in a student body of 2,500 of wildly varying levels of compassion, personal insight, and outright cruelty toward one another. Faculty included.

    No sooner would I drop her off at “Behemoth High” in the morning, Andrea was walking out the back door.

    We had to make some decisions.

    I investigated an online academy which would enable her to earn a high school diploma. The curriculum was poorly developed and lacked the rigor to prepare her for a post-school life. The whole set up just seemed like a sketchy tax dollar suck by a private company masquerading as a concerned civic venture.

    Her less than sympathetic guidance counselor suggested a more get-tough approach at a private boot camp-inspired boarding school. Eh, not a chance. She’s emotionally overwhelmed not a criminal-in-the-making.

    I even considered home-schooling her but the only materials I could find were from religious fundamentalist groups with penchants for railing against the federal government and invoking Biblical scripture in every lesson plan.

    That left charter schools whose quality varies as widely as their motives.

    Some I found were nothing more than fronts for conservative white folk to yank their kids out of the dreaded multi-cultural, multi-lingual environments in the neighborhood public school. These schools offered nothing more than a safe refuge of suburban homogeneity at taxpayer’s expense.

    Others purported to offer a better education to urban students by essentially cherry-picking kids who were more likely than not already destined to achieve because of involved parents and academic ability. Yet, even in those charter schools, it was glaringly obvious that too often the “we can do it” momentum that created the schools couldn’t sustain them through the hard realities of school administration. Factions of parents, once united in their good intentions, now squabbled with one another while the students, and the schools’ mounting debts, were quietly re-absorbed back into the public school district, as mandated by law.

    However, I do think there is a place for charter schools.

    There are very unique subsets of students where traditional teaching methods and/or learning environments can’t be delivered well by public school districts that understandably must focus on the needs of large numbers of mainstream-ability children. My daughter was one of those students.

    We eventually found a charter high school operated by a non-profit mental health agency, under the auspices of the public school district, that focused very specifically on the educational needs of teens with emotional disorders that prevented them from fully engaging and succeeding in school. All of the teachers were certified in special education and were supported by a team of mental health professionals from the agency. The entire student body consisted of 50 kids; class sizes averaged between five and seven students per teacher. The curriculum was individually developed with each student’s needs and strengths in mind. The budget was amply supported by a charitable endowment. Students, like my daughter, who were not referred by their home school district with an accompanying per pupil stipend, paid a sliding-scale tuition rate.

    I would not expect a public school district to meet the unique needs of such a small group of students in a regular academic setting. In these cases, charter schools can and do make sense as a way for districts to publicly accommodate every student who enrolls.

    For me, though, the buck stops there with respect to charters. If a group of parents or non-profit organization can demonstrate a clear need for an alternative educational setting that meets, or better exceeds, state standards then a charter should be granted. Likewise, the school should adhere to the same rigorous scrutiny of our public schools in terms of educational excellence, financial transparency and faculty credentials.

    But too often charter school applications belie other hidden agendas – personal antagonism toward secular public education, profit-seeking by quasi-corporate chain schools and lucrative charter school administrative support firms – that do not deserve taxpayer support.

    Otherwise, establish a private school with your own funds and let the holy and apostolic free market be your guide.