Re-evaluating Our Education System: Proposal for Universal Charter School System | Rose Brown
The seismic cultural and political turbulence of the last year makes examining our educational system of paramount importance. In cities throughout the States, more attention than ever is being drawn to the inequality between neighborhoods that are only a few miles apart from one another. More concern than ever is being expressed about the education of children as parents are forced to weigh their worries between their child’s future educational growth and COVID-19. But with all the upheaval and an abrupt pause in the machine of education and daily life as we know it, we actually have an opportunity to make major changes for the betterment of all. As a former teacher, I see education as the potential solution to many problems we see in the U.S. (and around the world) today.
Firstly, let’s examine the current state of our education. Since much has been written about this, I will only briefly touch on some of the perceived and widely recognized issues today. There is an obvious inequality among public schools, depending on the location. This is so apparent that housing prices in good school districts are vastly higher, based on that fact. Anecdotally, I knew of one woman in the South Side of Chicago who lied about her child’s address and was jailed, all for the desire to have her child attend a better quality public school. This is not an isolated incident. Parents are feeling so trapped by their current lack of options in education that more of them are even turning to homeschooling as an alternative.
In addition to these district issues, many students have specific and different needs that are not adequately met in their public school. Discipline issues and large class sizes often discourage good teachers from teaching in low performing public schools. The “dumbing down” of curriculum (for a variety of reasons, whether it is to make a manageable workload for an overworked teacher, accommodate specific learning needs, etc.) means a high school diploma has little value on its own today. Even at a highly reputable public school, there is a persistent mentality that AP classes are the only ones of value and the general education classes are severely lacking. These are just some of the myriad of problems that exist today in our school system.
Another option to public schools (besides pricey private schools and often unattainable homeschooling) has presented itself relatively recently. Charter schools are independent from traditional school districts, yet still follow the state and federal education standards. They receive partial public funding, but much less than traditional public schools, and often rely on private funding and typically operate on a much slimmer budget. Despite this setback, charter schools have been growing rapidly and for very good reason. They offer parents another option, besides attempting to move into a neighborhood that is financially untenable for their situations, to the disappointing traditional public school system. Although charter schools throughout the country vary in their credibility and their quality (you can find many horror stories of poorly run charter schools), at least it is a system that is providing options and much needed change. Poor quality charter schools will lose their charter if they do not abide by state and federal standards or if their enrollment is too low. Parents will see if their children are receiving a quality education or not and can pull their student out of these schools at any time (and they do). Although it is a risk to enroll their student in a new charter school, many parents believe it is worth the risk after weighing their options.
There is a strong resistance to charter schools in the United States. One of the arguments against charter schools is that it creates a brain drain from the regular public schools. Many of the highest achieving students, or at least students that have involved parents, leave the regular public school system and the general education level of the classroom is lowered. Of course, any parent would not want their child’s education to be sacrificed for the sake of the lower students around them. In addition, there are already internal brain drains occurring in the regular public schools due to GT (Gifted and Talented) tracks and Advanced Placement classes. Especially in regards to the GT programs, students are separated at a very young age. Often, this results in a superficially inflated confidence in some students and an inferiority complex in the students not chosen for this track. Although there is an argument for separate tracks suited to those with extremely high IQ’s, the Mensa students, and the young geniuses, this is a very small percentage of the population and not the majority of students that make up GT classes. Regardless, the brain drain argument is not enough to deny the establishment or spread of charter schools. However, sprinkling some charter schools throughout our country does not entirely fix our education system.
The solution for our major educational flaws lies in a full commitment to the charter school system. What I propose is that all schools in the U.S. (excluding private schools) require a charter that explicitly states a mission statement and that adheres to all state and federal standards. Ideally, every parent will have at least two possible charter school options for their child’s education in their area. This contrasts with schools being built out of a need from overcrowded classrooms and to accommodate the population of a school district. Once a child must start school (before the age of seven in the U.S.), his/her parents must choose between one of the local charter options. Even in the worst case scenario, where a parent is not invested in their child’s education, they will have to choose one of the given options. The funding and success of the schools will be based on enrollment, which of course will reflect the demand of the local parents. This means the schools with the best teachers, the best educational philosophy, the greatest success on test scores, etc. will be the schools that excel. The ones that lose enrollment as their test scores plummet, or their teaching quality declines will eventually die out as they don’t meet enrollment standards and their funding is cut. Giving parents agency over their children’s education will have a powerful effect on the system as a whole.
Choices in schools will allow for options and variety in each district. For example, there could be a STEM option, an arts and music school, a college preparatory option, a classical liberal arts option, a Montessori option, and a vocational option all within the same area. There would be a natural diversity for students with differing interests, goals, and talents. This could also potentially phase out the harmful “smart kid/dumb kid’ tracks that have arisen in regular public schools. Although this poses a problem in rural areas, where multiple school options would require very long bus rides or may not even be possible, many of our biggest educational crises lie in urban communities where this would not be as much of a hurdle. Utilizing school vouchers in areas where multiple school choices are not available would mitigate this issue.
Without this natural free market structure, there is little motivation for schools to reform. In regular public schools, there exists superficial motivations for improvement, but since there is no real consequence to stagnation or decline in the long run, those motivations only help the school to improve in small, fleeting, or insubstantial ways. For example, lawmakers in Texas, where I taught, have emphasized the statewide standardized test scores to pressure schools to improve. Consequently, many schools solely emphasize test preparation, rather than true deep knowledge and the ability to critically think and creatively problem solve. I saw this first hand while student-teaching a 9th grade English class. Under the direction of my mentor teacher, I was expected to have the students memorize a scripted essay in the hopes that they would reproduce it well enough to pass their required exam. It was dreary and depressing work, for both the teacher and students, and much of our class time was devoted to this. Obviously, the students did not leave that class with a greater appreciation of the English language. Often, after these tests are completed in March or April, the teachers spend the rest of the year presenting lessons that lack serious intellectual merit. Lawmakers usually recognize the importance of high expectations in their legislation, but the spirit of the law is often lost in practice.
The power of choice is not to be underplayed. The threat of losing funding, the need to attract families, and the competition with other schools will motivate these charter schools to holistically provide quality education. Currently, more funds are often given to poor-performing schools in a futile attempt to improve a failing system. In contrast, just giving parents the ability to choose a school and the freedom to change schools will force these institutions to consider the needs of their particular students and cater to the needs of the community. Students and families will have more investment in schools that they have chosen. At a school I worked in that required students to apply for enrollment that was then determined by a random lottery, there was an atmosphere of pride and privilege (in the positive sense) at having chosen this school. It was a different choice than a regular public school, and the students had a sense that they had been given a special opportunity, propagated by the administration and faculty. From what I witnessed, there was nothing exceptional about the rigor of the classes or the aptitude of the teachers, but this atmosphere definitely had a positive effect on school culture and student confidence. When families have at least some control over their child’s education, teachers are more motivated, parents are more motivated, and students are more motivated.
Lastly, one of the benefits of charter schools over traditional public schools is the intention to establish a specific culture that goes along with establishing a brand new school. Traditional public schools are stuck in a rut of years of traditions, some of which don’t make sense anymore and the purpose of the school has been muddled. For example, many public schools were established at the turn of the century to educate the masses of poor immigrant children that had no access to other educational opportunities. The bell is a vestige of this time when schools used factory bells to acclimate students to their impending future lives of factory work. Even the idea of school-free summers comes from a time when farmers needed their children to be helping on the farm during certain times of the year. With the building of a new system, these ideas can be rethought and either abandoned or included with purpose and intention.
The consequence of a system without intention is that the students will establish the culture. Human communities everywhere will always have a culture, as it is a part of our nature. Schools should have an intentional culture, thought out before the school is even created and reinforced by everyone that works within the school. If the administration, faculty, etc. do not do this, the students will. As someone who chose education as my profession, I truly love young people and think they are absolutely extraordinary and capable of greatness and goodness. However, I am also acutely aware of their lack of experience and lack of perception in understanding what is best for their future. When students establish the culture, it often does not go in a direction that is beneficial to the community. It can be competitive, totalitarian, and even immoral. A hierarchy is often quickly established that places the least socially adaptable at the bottom, to their great detriment. If you did not have a single school experience that illustrates this fact, then you are the lucky one. The school culture must be established by the administration and teachers with deliberacy, so that students are learning in a healthy, functional environment.
We have the opportunity during this time to improve our education system, especially as more parents become cognizant of the challenges of public school and are looking for alternatives. The solution lies in the free exchange of ideas, applied to schools. A universal charter school system will give parents the choices they have been searching for. As with any marketplace, including the one of ideas, successful schools succeed and the unsuccessful ones will close. Creative destruction will tear down the educational patterns that enable our social problems and form the framework to cultivate fresh thinking individuals prepared for this new century. We have a chance to examine with a critical eye where we are today, so that we can improve, without abandoning the progress that has been made.
Rose Brown grew up in the Chicago suburbs and earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Dallas. She is certified to teach secondary education in Texas and taught for five years in a charter school. In addition, she is a painter and a lifelong student of the liberal arts.