As is often the case, my mother-in-law was the inspiration for this week’s Teaching Tuesday. There are many people like her who will jump to say that charter schools and private schools are the best ever and that’s where all the students should go to get a “better education.” If one looks closer, the phenomenon of charter and private schools is easily explained. Simply put, private schools and charter schools stack the deck. Their entrance requirements often require parents to participate in school activities in addition to a certain level of performance and behavior from the students, otherwise the student cannot attend the school.  Waiting lists for charter schools can be years long as people do not have to pay tuition (charter schools are modified public institutions) and tend to flock to them when they do not have a nearby (or affordable) private school option.

In both cases the schools have the option of choosing who is admitted. So when we look at either type of school as “the answer to the problems in public education” we are in danger of making a grave mistake. Going to a private school doesn’t make you smarter or more likely to graduate from high school, it just makes you more likely to be from an affluent family. Going to a charter school doesn’t necessarily make you smarter either, it just makes you more likely to have been a high achiever in the public schools whose parents were tired of being held back by the “other kids” but they couldn’t get you to a private school. In both cases we are looking at the best and brightest skimmed off the top and displayed for the world to see. “Look at our test scores, they are SO AWESOME!!” “Our kids go on to graduate high school and get college degrees at a higher rate than those (dirty) public school kids.” “Everybody should go to these schools, they are like a magic intelligence pill!”

So voucher programs are proposed, taking even more money away from the public schools than has been already. More of the high achievers depart (if they can), leaving the special needs students and the low performing, badly behaved, very poor students by which to judge the school’s and teachers’ performance to qualify for federal aid and state monies (and in some cases to keep the school open). Averages drop, scores drop, and students that need the most assistance, motivation, funding, and support do not receive it. Teachers at these schools are in danger of being fired, losing incentive pay, and losing respect or job prospects due to the performance of their students on The Test and the reputation of the school at which they teach.

Imagine an orange grove. To make orange juice only the best oranges are chosen, the others are left on the tree and others are left to rot on the ground. People say “what a waste, we need to figure out how to make all oranges the best oranges!” Experts say that it isn’t possible if you want the best orange juice: you can only select the best oranges. If you include the average oranges or the rotting ones on the ground you invalidate the juicing process and NO juice is made. The press used to make orange juice cannot magically transform the other oranges into usable fruit.

Now imagine our private and charter schools. We hear “this is the future of education!” and “everyone wants in!” and “all schools should follow this model!” Now imagine that instead of only accepting those students they chose, these schools would need to take in all public school students and produce the same results. Even the inner city kids. Even the impoverished. Even the rural. Even the special needs students. The juice wouldn’t be quite as good.

Just as flight to the suburbs resegregated schools in terms of race, private and charter schools allow for children to be segregated based on their smarts or affluence (or location). Whether this is okay or not is a difficult question for me to answer. As an identified gifted child I more than likely would have benefited from either institution. However, as a teacher I cannot ignore that these schools actively benefit some students and teachers and actively hurt others. And keeping to the Wiccan Rede I’ve described on a previous Theological Thursday, this just doesn’t jive. Private schools and charter schools aren’t the solution to our American Public School Problem (TM), they are the band aid that is being used to cover its gaping wound. Look! We fixed it! Not quite folks, not quite.