As public school students, we have all too little control over the quality of our education, and for some, the only way to avoid attending failing schools is to attend charter schools. This is an issue that was recently brought to light by the film Waiting for “Superman”, but the film failed to address that charter schools aren’t always successful, and sometimes they pose more of a risk than traditional public schools.
The goal of charter schools is to give students and families more choice in their education, including those with specialized focuses, like performing arts or science. They are able to do this because they are publicly-funded but don’t have to comply with some of the rules and regulations that public schools have to. For example, charter schools do not have teachers’ unions, giving them more freedom in who they hire. St. Paul Conservatory for the Performing Arts, also known as SPCPA, for example, is a charter school with a performing arts focus, while Great River School is another charter with a Montessori focus. Charter schools are a relatively recent invention. In fact, in 1991, Minnesota was the first state to pass legislation approving the formation of charter schools.
In Waiting for “Superman,” a new and controversial documentary, director Davis Guggenheim focuses on the journey of five kids from all across the country, and their effort to get into specific charter schools. For most of the kids, the charter schools are their last opportunity to go to a successful school. These kids have motivation and hope, but the only public schools available to them are characterized as “dropout factories,” and they cannot afford to go to private schools.
While there are some charter schools that are very successful, the vast majority of them are not any more effective than traditional public schools. In fact, according to Waiting for “Superman,” only about 17% of all charter schools are successful. So why are students all across the country scrambling to get in to these schools? While that’s great for the students that are attending those 17% of schools, what about the students that are attending the rest of the charter schools? Attending the available public school could be significantly better than going to the unsuccessful charter. And if it’s not, it only means we should shift our focus to making every school better.
Because most of the successful charter schools are in high-demand, and can only admit some students to the school, they must use a lottery to determine who gets in to the school. Just the idea of relying on a lottery to determine your future seems wrong. In the final minutes of Waiting for “Superman”, the audience waits, agonizingly watching the admission lotteries at the schools that the five children are hoping to attend. As dramatic and heart-wrenching as it was, random lotteries should not be how students are chosen to attend schools, charter or not. If they only way to get a good education is to win, rather than earn, then we as a nation are failing.
While charter schools may be a good fit for many, or a way to escape a “dropout factory,” are they the key to fixing our broken education system? Davis Guggenheim seems to think so. But the reality of the situation is this: charter schools put the quality and even the existence of traditional schools in jeopardy.