The lack of good educational options for poor, urban and minority children across our country, including here in the city of Rochester, has been well-publicized. So has Rochester’s status as one of the nation’s most impoverished cities.
High-quality educational opportunity is the only way out of this recurring cycle of generational poverty. We can’t fix poverty, we can’t fix urban decay, we can’t fix crime, we can’t mend race relations and we can’t solve the structural budgetary imbalances facing our city until we fix urban education. Income inequality, which has received so much recent attention, is rooted in educational inequality. Charter schools certainly aren’t a magic bullet for solving these problems, but they do represent a significant piece of the puzzle.
In last week’s RBJ, James Bertolone wrote in his Labor column (“Charter school movement is an attack on public education,” RBJ, 3/28/14) that charter schools are “undermining public education so that private corporations can grab tens of billions of federal, state and local tax dollars.” The truth is charter schools are public schools! They just aren’t district-run schools. And the vast majority of charters, including every school operating here in Rochester, are not-for-profit entities.
Across New York, charters are working. With enrollment heavily skewed toward poor, urban, minority students who are admitted via lottery, last year as in most years, four out of five New York charter schools outperformed the district schools in the school districts where they were located. And they achieved those results with one-third fewer taxpayer dollars than their district counterparts. Charters receive zero taxpayer funding for facilities, which means that these public schools must go hat-in-hand to the donor community to raise the funds necessary to put a roof over their students’ heads. The inference that the charter school movement is all about corporate greed is laughable.
Here’s why I’m a charter school fan. I simply don’t like monopolies. I think parents, not the government, should be the ones who decide where their children go to school. Think about it. What if the government were to assign students to colleges strictly by street address? So the boy who lives four blocks down is assigned to Harvard. Your niece across town is assigned to Princeton. And your kid? She’ll be headed to Podunk U in the fall simply because of your street address.
Sound absurd? Well, that’s today’s K-12 system. But if such a system wouldn’t be acceptable for college, then why should it be acceptable for the K-12 education that prepares a child for college? Charter schools provide families with a vehicle for breaking this monopoly. They empower parents with options aside from the monopoly school district.
Children learn differently. Some require a rigid, high-discipline learning environment; others thrive in an experiential learning setting. Some kids prosper in single-sex schools; others need the social interaction of mixed-gender classrooms. Some children might gravitate toward an arts-focused curriculum, others toward one focusing on science, technology, engineering and math. That’s the beauty of school choice, be it via charters or vouchers: Different schools are free to offer different learning environments, and each family is free to choose the school whose educational approach best suits the individual child’s needs.
Charters are “schools of choice.” Since students aren’t automatically assigned to them, charters have to compete to attract students. That’s a powerful dynamic, with parents empowered to select the school best suited to their individual child’s needs. Mr. Bertolone wrote that charter schools “usually have high suspension rates, high expulsion rates, high attrition rates and do not replace the kids they get rid of.” But remember, charter schools are funded on a per-pupil basis. They have a powerful monetary incentive to keep their classrooms full. Expelling a child or failing to replace voluntary departures entails significant negative revenue consequences.
Conversely, charters’ being “schools of choice” means parents are free to exit any charter school they believe fails to meet their child’s educational needs or where the school culture isn’t a good match. That parental freedom can and does create turnover.
Because charters are issued in five-year increments, charter schools must deliver superior educational outcomes to have their charters renewed for a subsequent five-year term. Those that fail to perform are closed, and that’s as it should be. A failing school should be forced to close.
Happily, the vast majority of New York’s charters are doing an outstanding job of educating urban youths. Competition truly is a wonderful thing!
Geoffrey Rosenberger is the retired co-founder of Clover Capital Management and chairman of the True North Rochester Preparatory Charter School board of trustees.
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