Are Charter Schools the Answer to the Public Education Problem?


In March 2011, when USA Today published the investigation results concerning the rise in standardized test scores in Washington, D.C. public schools, the picture of Michelle Rhee’s school reforms become less black and white. The former D.C public schools chancellor spearheaded the education reform movement and heroically turned failing schools around by firing at least 600 teachers, establishing a teacher evaluation system while opposing tenure, and becoming such a threat to teachers’ unions that she had to resign — or so the narrative goes.

This story does not reconcile well with the unsettling high rates of erasures and cheating on tests during Rhee’s tenure. In response, she denounced the investigation results as “attacks on education reforms.”

Other politicians like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel  have taken similar stand, pointing a finger at teachers’ union as the cause of inefficiency in public school systems. As the results of different public school systems have showed, neither firing teachers nor charging parents for their lack of involvement nor turning schools into charter franchises ensures schools’ commitment to students’ success.

Upon taking office in 2007, Rhee unapologetically closed 23 schools, in addition to firing 36 principals and cutting 121 office jobs. She also allowed teachers to receive bonuses based on students’ achievement in agreement to give up tenure protections. Rhee is not wrong for her aggressive leadership, or for her anti-union sentiments, or for firing bad teachers. Rhee is wrong for thinking that corporate practices like bonus pays based on rises in production results can simplistically apply to education.

The education of human beings is not a McDonald’s sandwich, just needing the right ingredients to be replicated in almost 13,000 locations across the U.S. On the contrary, it depends on a multiplicity of factors – parents’ level of education, incomes, gang violence, availability of resources, etc. Thus, as a responsible, convinced education reformer, Rhee resorted to a culture motivated by fears and demanded principals to guarantee the amount of test points their students will achieve. Such strategies only produce short-term, inconsistent results. Eventually, teachers and principals will either resign or play with the system to reach the unrealistic test score benchmark, which some of them did.

The story of D.C. public schools pinpoints the problem in the charter-school approach to public education. The success of charter schools like KIPPs does not only lie in the more relaxing charter structure but also the underlying morality and nurturing environments that they produce. KIPPs do not ask teachers to set a test score goal; they encourage teachers to help students reach their potential. With a schedule runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with students receiving paychecks and going to mandatory summer schools, KIPP schools eliminate most of the barriers barring students from success. They thrive because they commit to supporting students, not because they are charter schools.

Successful public education requires a holistic approach, not one-sided blame on teachers’ performances. Recent ratings from New York City teachers show that teachers from the poorest to the most influential neighborhoods have little influences on students’ test scores. The Chicago Sun Times recently reported that charter schools produce wildly uneven results that correlate more with students’ backgrounds and neighborhoods than the schools’ structures, indicating that the charter structure does little in producing academic success. On the other hand, community organizations like the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in Chicago have been thriving by implementing parent-mentor programs, attempting to minimize challenges facing students at home. It is misleading to juxtapose KIPPs to public schools and place the blame on teacher union. The solutions to the public education question already existed; the more pressing question is how much we are willing to commit to educating our future generations.

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