Charter schools don’t offer a choice, I should know, I taught in two

For years Republicans have been calling for Kentucky to open its arms to charter schools, and now that the electoral tides have turned, it would seem that they may finally have their chance. That’s a bad thing.

I had the privilege of teaching in two separate inner-city schools in Baltimore, Md. One school was a horribly mismanaged nightmare of an institution, and one was a relatively well-managed group of incredible individuals who banded together as a team to push through obstacles and setbacks in order to ensure student success.

One school allowed students to roam freely inside the school building as long as they didn’t hurt anyone, because the school’s funding was only based on school attendance, and not classroom attendance. The other school invested money from donors and grants into hiring qualified assistant principals responsible purely for student engagement and discipline.

One school had illicit gang activity, drug use and regular fights. The other had a regimented schedule, decent food, extracurricular opportunities and well-qualified teachers and administrators.

One school was cited by a Maryland state legislator for having deplorable conditions not suitable for students under any circumstances. The other school is regularly commended by the Maryland state government, local governmental leadership and even members of Congress.

What do these two schools have in common?

They both serve inner-city communities with high levels of poverty. They both receive the same amount of funding from federal, state and local governments. And, oh yeah, they’re both charter schools.

The biggest problem with charter schools is not that they siphon state and federal dollars meant for our kids and their teachers into the pockets of wealthy donors, investors and “administrative personnel.” The biggest problem with charter schools isn’t that they don’t tend to get any better results than regular public schools, that they often get worse results than regular public schools, that they tend to prevent teachers from unionizing, or that they tend to do all of this while actually costing taxpayers more. All of these things are true, and all of them are problems.

But the biggest problem with charter schools is that they prevent citizens from bonding into communities with common goals, which prevents students from receiving an equal education. When your neighbor’s kid goes to a different school than your kid, neither of you have an incentive to help the other lobby governmental leaders to make either school any better. There’s no way for regular people who work hard all day and pay their taxes to ensure that the charter school their kid goes to will be more like the good charter school than the bad one.

Charter schools do bleed communities of their tax revenue to pay for things that we could get much cheaper through an ordinary public school. But more importantly, they bleed communities of their right to hold their school leaders accountable. They bleed communities of the right to collectively bargain for better schools and they do so under the guise of “school choice.”

Charter advocates maintain that this system creates “competition.” But school attendance is compulsory and schools are allocated money whether they perform well or not. In a charter scheme schools are competing to get more students (usually through gimmicks of some kind), not educate students better (which usually takes years to prove through data and is easily manipulated). Furthermore, it’s schools where students are performing the worst that often need extra funds to tackle those challenges. Some charter school-companies abuse this system in a fashion that would make “The Producers” blush.

When making the decision to overturn a system that has existed in its current form for a very long time, it’s worth a moment to think about why that system was put into place to begin with. Schools are run by the government because successful businesses tend to cut costs in order to increase profit. This concept doesn’t transfer well to student success and never has. There can be no “Made in China” labels when it comes to a kid’s education. Cutting corners to increase profits leads to very permanent debilitating results that can cripple a community for generations. If a business makes a bad product, the business fails. If a charter school makes a bad product, children are impacted for their entire lives.

Schools do well when parents are involved in the democratic process to hold policy-makers accountable. Charter schools stifle this involvement by making administration more complicated — no longer can you simply lobby the local school board to ensure your children are getting the education they deserve. This lack of accountability ultimately lowers the bar for all schools. If one is bad and the other is worse, who cares that you get to “choose?”

Devon Skeens is a second-year law student at the University of Louisville and was a Teach for America teacher in Baltimore. He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Northern Kentucky University and a master’s in education from Johns Hopkins University.