Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Charter Schools, New Buildings And Other Panaceas (Part I)

Yesterday, in its lead story the Richmond Times Dispatch revealed that Virginia “gets F on charter schools in report.” I know that Monday is a slow news day but, come on, is this the most important event that took place in the world over the weekend? It wasn’t until I read past the headline that I realized that this wasn’t even news. The F that Virginia received was from the Center for Education Reform, an organization that is a strong advocate of (you guessed it) charter schools. If the Center had rated Virginia higher than an F, that would have been a real news story. Let’s be honest. The Center’s rating is based on the sole fact that Virginia has a small number of charter schools.

Which brings us to today’s RTD editorial. The RTD editors agree with the Center’s conclusion that Virginia’s charter school law is “abysmal.” As evidence the editors go back to the simple fact that Virginia has only three functioning charter schools, much less than other states. The editors then switch to their other hand and acknowledge the argument by the Virginia Education Association that Virginia has so few charter schools because it has other types of innovative schools. However, they reject this argument as “risible.” (For those of you who are vocabularily challenged risible means laughable or ludicrous.)

Now the editors come to the meat of their argument:

The Center's report follows closely behind a new poll showing that most Virginians think highly of their public schools; all the same, a majority also would like to see more educational choices available. Regardless of political party, most Virginians would support tuition tax credits and even school vouchers.

Stop! Dear editors, what poll are you referring to that shows that “most Virginians” would support tax credits and school vouchers? Well this maven may have been born and raised in the past century, but I have learned to do Internet research. So, it didn’t take me long to find out about this poll. I found a RTD article on November 17, 2009, which begins with, “Virginians like their public schools but would still like more public options.” It relies on a poll “sponsored by several organizations supporting school vouchers and tax-credit scholarship programs.” 1

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that this fight was fixed. But to rely on a self- serving poll “sponsored” by organizations supporting vouchers and tuition tax credit for the conclusion that most Virginians support vouchers and tax credits is like relying on a poll sponsored by foxes that concludes that most chickens want to be eaten. RTD editors, I find your reliance on this poll to be itself risible.

Trusted reader, I am not opposed to charter schools. Our public schools are not doing as good a job educating our children as they should and every type of innovation must be considered. What I do object to is those “true believers” who tell us that charters schools are the only way to save our children. They want us to believe that merely because it is a charter school, rather than a normal public school, such a school must necessarily perform better. I was having a facebook discussion with a friend (I’m sorry to admit, dear reader, that I do use facebook on occasion) about charter schools. I asked what benefit the children in my neighborhood school would gain from the opening of the Patrick Henry charter school in Richmond next fall. He replied that we could also make our neighborhood school into a charter school, as if that would automatically make it better.

I’m not sure whether Virginia’s charter school laws need to be fixed. After all, it’s not as if there are hundreds of people in line to open charter schools in the Commonwealth. Nor do I see evidence that school boards across Virginia have conspired to deny charter applications. If there is such desire to open charter schools in the Old Dominion let’s see some people put in the hard work that the proponents of the Patrick Henry school put in and let’s see them file their applications for charters. If after that happens we see evidence that school boards are routinely denying charter applications then the law needs fixing.

The charter school “true believers” are always reminding us that charter schools are public schools. And they certainly expect that public moneys, both state and local, will be made available for them to operate their schools. Yet they object to school boards, which are accountable for those public funds, having any authority to decide whether their application for a charter has merit and from reviewing their operations to assure that public funds are being properly spent. I know that if Richmond Public Schools misuses public money I can hold my school board representative accountable and vote her out at the next election. But who do I vote against if a charter school misspends public funds? I have no representative on its managing board.

(To be continued)

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