Publics Versus Charters and the Student Underclass

Summary: The ideological brawl between charter and public school advocates obscures the truth that there is a substantial group of big city low income kids of color whose needs are not met by either camp.

There is no real magic, you know, in the fashioning of effective schools.

The battle between public school defenders and the market types behind charter innovations is more smoke and mirrors than substantive discourse. Quietly, reforms proceed in fits and jerks in both camps. Even sometimes there is collaboration, we are told. Strange notion.kokopelli-2285610_1280

But the public arena is focused on war and volleys of words. “The public schools are abject failures.” “The charter movement destroys public education.” The atmosphere is poisoned; as in the wider political climate the two camps seem to inhabit alternate realities.

In truth, stories abound in inner city public schools of the striving of teachers and students; thoughtful charter networks show marginal yet hopeful gains with populations of kids who otherwise might have languished in a public counterpart, and do so without undercutting public neighbors.

The nub of one contention about charters is that they “cherry pick” by means devious or inadvertant the cream of the inner city student, hence the modest positive results for charters in some well publicized quarters.

Low income students, largely brown and black in the big city, represent a spectrum of preparation, family support, and the ability to persevere or muster “grit,” to use the edulingo. As the critique goes, inner city charters that boast promising results have in fact enrolled more than their share of kids that are good bets in the first place, and have left less ready peers to languish in public schools that do not tap their talents.

Critics cite application procedures and other restrictive bars that allow charter schools to limit the enrollment of students they deem not ready to meet their specific level of challenge.

Critics also claim that the culture of some charters, particularly those who espouse a “no excuse” philosophy, in effect push out already enrolled students who prove themselves not ready for the rigor and work ethic required, even if it is a parent who makes the exit decision.

The truth to my eyes is more in the middle; it does appear that some minority of charters offer an educational leg up for ambitiously ready students that those students might not have gotten in their more stagnant local public alternative.

Those not “ambitiously ready,” however, are weeded out in the application process or “forced out” by circumstances when it becomes clear that the student is not able to thrive in that atmosphere. In effect, such charters restrict enrollment for kids who need more or differently from what they offer.

Before public school advocates feel vindicated however, we are obliged to remember these are the same students public education also does not reach, a breakdown that launched the charter movement in the first place.

Students fail to engage in and eventually drop out of both systems.

The less prominent truth is that each has gained precious little ground with the hard core underclass of students. The public battle between charter and publics obscures this miscarriage by both.

It’s not about magical intervention. This underclass student is damaged emotionally and cognitively by poverty; collectively they are not a fringe population, but a substantial group for which both charter and public schools will need resources they currently do not command.

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