What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy. -John Dewey
It's ironic that the new charter school about to be approved by Ball State University to open in our town is doing so in the name of "social justice." Here is their vision statement:
"At Green Meadows Charter School, students, teachers, and parents foster respect, reverence and love for people and the natural world. At our school, all relationships are grounded in respect and reciprocity. Our students are infused with a sense of social justice and environmental sustainability. Every person at Green Meadows is loved and respected and shares his/her gifts, talents, and interests with the larger community. Everyone at our school experiences freedom and security to safely explore and question. Igniting and stoking our students', teachers', and parents' passion for learning is imbued in our school's culture."
It sounds amazing. Who wouldn't want this for their children? And are we to infer or juxtapose this vision with our neighborhood public schools and assume that our public school doesn't foster respect or love for people? This is, after all, presumably one of the reasons parents are seeking this choice. They are selecting the community that matches their values and needs.
I know that these are thoughtful and loving parents who choose charter schools. That is the whole reason why they are seeking the best possible placement for their children. That is why they are going to the trouble of applying, getting them on a waitlist for the lottery to get in, finding transportation and care for them when their schedules/breaks are different from the public schools, etc. I am not saying that they are terrible people. I understand that parents have their reasons for seeking alternatives. We should not get bogged down in the fighting of my-school-is-better-than-your-school. It’s unproductive.
The frustration for me, however, is that many of the reasons that they give for leaving public schools are the direct result of the top-down "reforms” many of us have been actively fighting:. For example, they want smaller class sizes and more individual attention for their children. They want less emphasis on test results and, thus, less test prep. They want freedom within the curriculum for their children to find and follow their passions. But you know what? These are the same things that parents in the public schools want for their children.
And here is the problem. Every kid that leaves our public school system now takes with him or her the per-pupil funding. This, in turn, leaves our public schools with fewer resources and holes to be patched. Choices have to be made for where to cut and, because the vast majority of the budget goes toward salaries, it will likely be teachers. In attempts to keep class sizes down, it will probably be a teacher seen as more expendable (defined: teaching something not on the state-mandated tests). And this will likely mean art, music, gym, or librarians. This might mean our extracurricular activities: band, Science Olympiad and other programs will have to go by the wayside.
Before another charter school is established, siphoning more money and engaged families from our public schools in the name of social justice, let’s ponder that meaning. Let us pause and think about this before we continue to spread our limited resources on yet another charter school.
A “socially just” society is usually thought to be based on the principles of equality and solidarity. What kind of solidarity does taking away more funding and engaged parents from the public schools show the children in poverty, children of single mothers holding down two jobs or even my own privileged, well-cared-for, comfortable children, when their art teachers are taken away so that a few kids can have the opportunity for smaller class sizes and individual music instruction?
To be sure, this is not a new debate. There has always been choice in education: between public schools, private schools and even home schooling. We have also struggled to bring equity to public education. The segregation of neighborhoods and districts, the abandonment or "white flight" of our urban areas, have always been a struggle within a system purporting to offer equal opportunity. Vouchers began with Brown v. Board of Education when parents did not want their children attending school with those kids. They “chose” something else. But now, thanks to the system of funding, the debate has shifted in difficult and more troubling ways. That is because our schooling choices, those effectively opting out of public schools, will directly hurt the choice for the kids remaining in public education. And that is where our democracy suffers.
It's a danger to our democracy that we abandon the public school system under the guise of choice. Public charters, regardless of their label "public", play by different rules (like setting limits for class size/enrollment), are not under the authority of the local school board, and take funding and engaged families from the public school system. If those of us who are engaged as parents and citizens continue to abandon public schools for charters, home school or private schools, what kind of public school system will remain? Have we strayed so far from democracy as an ideal that we are willing to abandon our "commons" completely?
Liberty (or choice, I would say) within a democracy is usually qualified to be okay as long as you are not infringing on the rights of another. Do all children have the right to a high quality education? Liberty in a democracy also involves responsibility. Is it only individual responsibility (I need only take care of my own) or is there a collective responsibility, too?
I am with John Dewey on this one: every child should have free, excellent schools. We owe it to all children to support public education and to see to it that all kids have the "freedom and security to safely explore and question" and to find and share their gifts with the community as Green Meadows Charter School promises to do. The choice of another charter school, however, takes away the choice from a child in public school. It is how this competition works. Someone loses. In this case, children will lose. The community loses. And we as democratic citizens will definitely lose.