As a nation we are seeing a rapid rise in the number of charter schools. The new trend in education is “publicly funded but privately run (Fryer, 2012),” allowing for flexibility in curriculum, delivery, and student choice. Teachers in charter schools have the luxury to truly teach freely rather than being bound by the rules, regulations, and curricula set forth by public schools. From incorporating art in multiple aspects of academia to establishing time within the school year to engage in service-learning, charter schools look far different than the rigidness of public schools.
Most supporters of charter schools are not trying to rid education of public schools; instead, their aim is to provide the best solutions to education across all types of schools, both charter and public. There is mutual agreement that not all charter schools have improved outcomes for all students. The argument in favor of charter schools stems from numerical data which depicts improvements, even if small, providing some sort of foundation for future educational developments.
The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools describes the locations of most charter schools as no mistake. “Many charter school operators make the strategic decision to open charter schools in underserved neighborhoods with high concentrations of low income, minority, and low performing students (National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, 2011).” Following years of consistent low-achievement, charter school operators will plant the school in an area that has students that need the most assistance, or “at-risk” students.
Paulo Freire was a philosopher who consistently advocated for the “at-risk” population. “Liberation pedagogy in Freire’s philosophy of education refers to the power of education to liberate or free oppressed people from the social, economic, and political conditions that disempower and marginalize them (Gutek, 2011).” Education meant freedom from the chains of injustice. However, public schools were allowing students in impoverished areas to fall through the cracks in the world of education. For Freire, “he argued that conventional learning was the tool of the elite because it treated students as objects…(Rugut, 2013).” That is where the nature of charter schools can serve as a successful tool for those falling behind.
Rugut (2013) explains that ‘Friere’s generative theme is a student centered system of learning that challenges how knowledge is constructed in the formal education system and in society at large.’ Conventional educational practices, such as those observed in a public school setting, often still lack this student-centered approach. This is often associated with a hesitancy towards change, since this methodology requires both teachers and students to ‘modify their thinking and actions towards education’ (Sablonniere, 2009). Not only must educators base instruction around prior knowledge and individual student needs, they must successfully instruct their students on how to take charge of their own learning. This motivation is sometimes particularly difficult to foster with reluctant learners within the public school system. Public schools deal with further issues, such as inadequate library, lab, and technology resources; larger class sizes; and standardized tests (Jabbour, 2013).
However, charter schools regularly adopt a student-centered approach, and research shows that these institutions have been quite successful in closing the opportunity gap, particularly for African-American and Latino students. Linda-Darling Hammond, Stanford University professor and SCOPE faculty director, reports, “Students in the study schools showed greater achievement than their peers, had higher graduation rates, were better prepared for college and showed greater persistence in college. Student-centered learning proves to be especially beneficial to economically disadvantaged students and students whose parents have not attended college” (Frey, 2014).
Some politicians in Virginia recognize these benefits for disenfranchised students, and have passionately fought for an amendment to the Virginia State Constitution, a measure necessary to allow for the formation of more charter schools in the area. Senator Mark Obenshain argued that ‘they would provide a “lifeline” for poor children in a state that provides “a world-class education in some jurisdictions… [and] a third-world education” in others’ (Vozzella, 2016). This echoes Friere’s desire to establish educational institutions to champion the oppressed.
Efforts in Baton Rouge showcase the ability of charters to influence the neighborhood economy and community life. A study of the area showed that ‘NSBR is embedding community engagement in everything from vetting and recruiting school operators, to building a local pipeline of teachers who look like the students they serve, to striving to deliver what the community itself defines as an “excellent” school’ (Campbell, 2016). In the “third-world” areas of rural Virginia referenced by Obenshain, community involvement is crucial in providing higher-education opportunities for students. The Virginia State Council for Higher Education agrees, citing the need to increase minority voices in decision making (Nelson, 2015). As Friere believed, bringing authentic minority voices into the multicultural dialogue strengthens our educational system and our democratic society.
Charter schools not only outperform public schools on standardized testing, they also utilize cutting-edge practices and change classroom approaches. Abdulkadiroglu (2009) explains, ‘Proponents see charter schools’ freedom from regulation as a source of educational innovation, with the added benefit of providing a source of competition that may prompt innovation and improvement in the rest of the public system.’ Since charter schools focus so heavily on the success of every child, they are forced to adapt to meet the needs of individual students in ways not always feasible in larger public school classrooms.
According to the Virginia Department of Education there are currently nine operating charter schools serving students across the state. In comparison to surrounding states, Virginia ranks severely low in maintaining quality charter schools. “The Center for Education Reform gave Virginia a grade of “F” on its 2013, 2014, and 2015 charter law scorecards (Lehen, 2016).” The poor scoring quality of charter laws serves as discouragement as we advocate for the new opportunity that charter schools bring. Weak and restrictive laws are responsible for holding back the growth of charter schools here in Virginia. For starters, “Virginia enables only local school boards to serve as authorizers (instead of having multiple authorizers), but the boards often oppose charter school formation because they wish to retain funding and control (Lehen, 2016).” Fearful of losing resources, funding and support from current public schools, and having the power of the final say, local school boards often deny applications even if the state school board has given approval. “Virginia’s [law] also does not require authorizers to notify charter schools of problems they perceive or provide them with opportunities to correct those problems…laws also do not command authorizers to provide renewal guidance or allow charter schools to augment performance records with plans for improvement (Lehen, 2016).” Those in favor of charter schools find their frustrations in these laws and call for reform. If Virginia were to tailor the laws in such a way to promote charter schools, the state would be able to explore more options in the education system that has seen increase in popularity in some other states. With few successful charter schools in the state, there is little interest in exploring the failing charter school system, leaving the unjust laws hidden while charter schools continue to struggle to take off.
Our neighbors in Washington D.C. embrace 114 charter schools; 105 more than in Virginia (Lehen, 2016). D.C. utilizes a Public Charter School Board, which consists of members knowledgeable in various areas of charter schools. “The D.C. law explicitly exempts charter schools from statutes, policies, rules, and regulations established for public schools, further enhancing educational freedom (Lehen, 2016).” The positive legal aspects behind D.C. charter schools are deemed responsible for their success. As a whole, they invest in the tools and people required to have quality exploration into charter schools. Moreover, D.C. charter schools were able to build in more days of reading and math with the flexibility their rules allow. Holistically, Washington D.C. can serve as an example of what Virginia can become with reform to the laws.
The benefits of charter schools versus public schools add enough value to outweigh the negative viewpoints of critics. Charter schools allow for exploration into the reform of education, allowing teachers to embrace their own methodologies without rules hindering their ability. While not all charter schools have been successful, there has been significant progress in the overall success of students both academically and socially and allows for teachers to maximize their full potential as educators. As a nation, we must be willing to inform ourselves of the effect of these benefits to truly embrace what education can become.
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