Is A Charter School The Right School For Your Child?

In one of my earlier posts “What, Exactly, Is a Charter School?”, I stated that charter schools are an extremely complex and controversial topic, then went on to explain why they are complex. In this post, we will explore why they are controversial, and how to decide if a charter school is right for your child.

Before we get into the controversy, here is a summary of what we have discussed so far:

* Charter schools are independent from a school district and are run like a private business.
* Charter schools all have a special curriculum and/or teaching techniques that differentiate them from a regular public school. Every charter school is unique.
* Charter school formats are experimental, so some schools provide excellent education, and some do not.
* Charter schools are not necessarily local to you, and your child may have to commute.
* Charter schools choose students based on a lottery, not admission criteria, so some children will have an easier time getting into a charter than a magnet (or vice versa).

There are four aspects of charters that garner controversy. The first is that charter schools are allowed to be for profit. The second is that the people who found charter schools are not required to have to have an educational background. The third is that charter school teachers are rarely part of a union. And, last but not least, in some states charter school teachers do not have to be credentialed.

We’ll start with the credentials. After the “No Child Left Behind” legislation was enacted in 2002, most states began to require that charters have credentialed teachers for core academic courses, though not all. For the few states that allow non-credentialed teachers for core subjects, other requirements are in place, such as an extensive real-world work experience in the subject they are teaching. Many states do still allow non-core courses, such as physical education or music, to be taught by non-credentialed teachers in a charter school. You will have to check your state guidelines.

Next is the unions. Adversaries of charter schools believe that hiring non-union employees dis-empowers the teachers by taking away job protections like seniority and tenure, and also cheapens the labor pool. A perfect example of how teachers are disempowered is this article. I interviewed 5 charter school teachers, but only one, Ms. Mohr, was willing to go allow me to use their name. The other four basically said, “I am an at-will employee and if I say something controversial, I can get fired.” The fear of a good teacher being fired solely for saying something controversial is the very reason unions demanded tenure in the first place.

Adversaries claim that good teachers tend to leave charters to go to union jobs that provide job security, and usually better pay and better benefits. Says another teacher who asked to be anonymous “I am a great teacher. I have worked for a charter school for 10 years but now that there is a recession, I worry about being laid off. If I worked for a union school, I wouldn’t be as fearful. I am currently applying for union jobs and will take the first one that comes up.”

Advocates of charter schools argue that unions protect all teachers equally, and some teachers shouldn’t be protected. For example, not having tenure ensures the quality of teaching. If a charter teacher isn’t effectively reaching students, they can be let go. Trying to get rid of a bad tenured teacher is difficult. When I was in high school, I had a teacher who was in his 70’s and completely senile. In years past, he had been an excellent teacher, but he no longer had the mental capacity to teach. Unfortunately, because he was tenured, the school could not get rid of him.

As for pay and benefits, charter schools often offer teachers bonuses for performance. Says Ms. Mohr “I make more money at my charter school than I would in the Los Angeles Unified School District union. I may make a lower base salary, but because I am a good teacher, I get generous bonuses. In most traditional schools, tenured teachers make the same amount of money no matter what, so they have no external incentive to provide a quality education.

Advocates also say that good teachers stay at charters because they enjoy a freedom in curriculum and teaching style that district schools do not offer. Karen Piovarcsik, a first-grade teacher at Alta Murrieta elementary school (regular public school) in Murrieta, CA, says “Right now, our district is so concerned about API scores that our time gets dominated by English and math, and we don’t have as much time for the other subjects as we would like. Regular public schools, at least in our district, aren’t offering as well rounded of an education as they used to”. Since charter schools can offer a more diversified curriculum, teachers may find charters to be a more fulfilling place to work.

The remaining two controversial items are tied to one another. Adversaries of charter schools believe that allowing for-profit and people without educational backgrounds to found schools are both tragic flaws in the system. A teacher who did not want to be named explained to me that they have seen several charter schools opened by people who had a business background, not an educational background. While the founders had good intentions and good theories on paper, they simply did not have the experience needed to know what works in the classroom. While these business people did a good job in efficiently running a profitable business, the quality of education wasn’t necessarily good. See also this interview with Tara Wagner on Unschooling.

As we noted in the last article, advocates claim that by using the private business model, money is better managed and, even with a profit, more money still makes it to the classroom because there are not as many bureaucrats to pay. To be fair, most charters are not for profit and most are founded by professional educators, so for most schools, both of these arguments are moot.

Given all the information we have discussed, how does a parent decide if a charter school is right for their child? The only way to know is to do research. Find out about every charter school that is available in your area. Some schools are ideal fits for certain students. For example, if your child gets bored sitting through a traditional class, he may be happier in an individual study charter. If your child particularly enjoys a certain subject, there may be a charter that focuses heavily on the subject.

If you find a school whose teaching method/curriculum will appeal to your child’s personal preferences, do some research on the school to find out about the quality of education it offers. Remember that API scores are only one measuring tool, and as Mr. Franklin and Mr. Sherman explained in previous articles, don’t necessarily reflect the quality of education. Other barometers include attendance rates and level of PTA activity. In high school, also consider drop-out rates and the percentage of students that go on to universities.

If you find a school that you like, make sure to consider distance. As we discussed in a previous article, there are some downsides to not choosing a nearby school. If the distance is not going to be a barrier, send in an application.

If you find multiple schools that work for your child, it may be a good idea to apply to them all. With the lottery system, there is no way of knowing if your child will be accepted or not, and the more applications you have out, the better your odds of acceptance into a charter school. Also, be warned that some charters have very involved applications.

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