Making the case for charter schools

A chalkboard in a vintage charter school.(Photo: Greg and Jan Ritchie, via Shutterstock)

With Election Day less than a week away, voters have started casting ballots in the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction between Assemblymember Tony Thurmond and former Partnership for Los Angeles Schools CEO Marshall Tuck. Pundits are framing the race as a face-off between teachers’ unions and education reformers – no surprise, since one of the race’s key debates has been about whether or not charter schools are good for public education.

This is a silly debate, and it should be over. Here’s why the most common arguments against charter schools are either misleading or just plain wrong.

Charter school quality. One argument sometimes used in favor of charter schools is that they generally outperform traditional district schools – but even if that’s true in many urban areas, it’s certainly not true everywhere. Because of this, detractors are quick to point out any time this generalization is false, or they chalk up the difference to (usually incorrect) assertions that charter schools cherrypick students, require aggressive parental involvement, or have skewed demographics.

Let’s be clear: high standards and quality are important for every school — charter, traditional, or otherwise. What the argument belies is actually a far more pernicious logic: that if traditional schools are performing well, then charter schools aren’t needed. This is ridiculous.

Friends of mine have fraternal twins, one goes to a science and technology magnet, while the other goes to an arts school.

Both schools are high performing, but they focus on very different curriculum and skills. Yet, people who make the quality argument would say that if one has good results, we don’t need the other – even though it’s clear both kids wouldn’t be fulfilled at the same school. Every child needs something different to help them excel.

Still not convinced?

Let’s put it another way. Say you live in a neighborhood with a fantastic Italian restaurant that’s booked every night. Now imagine if plans were announced to open a sushi restaurant down the street, and the people who liked the Italian restaurant protested, saying that because the Italian restaurant is great, we don’t need a sushi restaurant. And, worse, if people choose the sushi restaurant, the Italian restaurant might suffer.

Seems nonsensical, right? Somehow, public education is the only field where people continue to argue for monopolistic practices with a straight face.

District budgets. Charter schools are regularly accused of taking money away from school districts. But a school district is merely a governing structure for a group of public schools, and  charter schools are public schools. When students get educated outside the district, then yes, school districts lose funding, and we can’t turn a blind eye to the impact of declining enrollment. But arguing that the number of charter schools should be capped because of their fiscal impact is essentially choosing money over students.

For that matter, talking about the education system as a “competition”misses the point entirely. Our goal should be to ensure all students get a high quality and individualized education. Putting students first means pointing them to whatever school best serves their individual needs, even if it’s one of “their” schools and not one of “ours.”

Charitable support. Ads have run around California attacking “out-of-state billionaires” who support and contribute to charter schools. Yes, it’s true some charter schools have wealthy benefactors – but so do museums and hospitals. Philanthropists have supported a variety of causes for generations – dollars spent educating kids are just as important, if not more important, than those spent on the opera or ballet.

I’ve yet to see a wealthy philanthropist get wealthier by giving money to charter school operators. And attacking them doesn’t do anything to improve results for students. And just to be sure, California also just outlawed for-profit charter schools, ending this straw man argument for good. This “billionaire” argument is intentionally misleading and has to stop.

The bottom line is that the “debate” over charter schools isn’t real; it was created by adults who have something to lose as charter schools gain popularity. For anybody else who puts the needs of students and parents first, then this debate should be over. And for the sake of California voters, I hope it will be soon.

Editor’s Note: Glenn Gritzner previously served as the Special Assistant to the Superintendent and Director of External Affairs for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the nation. He is currently a partner at Mercury, LLC in Los Angeles.

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