public schools vs. charter schools -OR- what you are vs. what you aren’t

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Friday, January 7th, 2011

little rock charter schools

public schools vs. charter schools -OR- what you are vs. what you aren’t

for long-time readers of this blog and those who know me in real life, it’s no mystery that i’m quite the proponent of public schools. famously (ok, that may be a strong word…but you get the idea…), i’ve written a couple posts that highlighted this value and it’s certainly gotten me in some hot water. largely, the hot water, of course, has come from my criticism of private schools. but in the last few years, a new player has entered the fray here in little rock and stirred the waters of debate: charter schools.

most notably, estem public charter school arrived in 2008 and has set the stage for quite a debate, drawing the proverbial line in the sand for both traditional public and private school proponents. the drama ramped up last march when the little rock public school board decided to take legal action against the state’s department of education for violating its policies regarding desegregation by greenlighting a growing number of charter schools. no doubt, the lines have been drawn and people have begun to choose sides.

let me, right off the bat, state that this isn’t a post about how charter schools are bad/wrong or even a defense of traditional public schools. whereas i certainly prefer traditional public schools and have many uneasy feelings about charter schools, that’s not necessary the point of this post. secondly, as a point of clarification, it’s worth stating that charter schools are, in fact, public schools that are free to attend. this is a point of confusion and misinformation that charter schools have been fighting for quite some time (and it’s why i’m referring to “regular” public schools as “traditional” public schools), so it’s fair that i aid the process of clarification.

with all that said, i stumbled across a website today for speak up arkansas, an advocacy (my word, not theirs…but seems fair) group for charter schools and, as their tagline states, “better schools for a better arkansas”. i saw an advertisement for their website that not only compelled me to visit their website because of the headline/copy, but also the well executed design (relative to most local advertising). despite my traditional public school leanings, this seemed like a good opportunity to go to what i assumed would be a well executed website (and i found to be a correct assumption upon arrival) and get some objective information about charter schools. i went with a very open mind, willing and ready to see a new perspective about charter schools. what i got, though, was an off-putting message that left me sympathetic to the little rock school district (who i’m otherwise not generally sympathetic toward).

whereas i was prepared to read statistics and boastful (i mean that in a good sense) statements about charter schools, what i found was the web equivalent to a political smear ad. in the very first few lines of copy on the website, you are greeted with the core hypothesis of the entire website:

Our children deserve the best opportunities we have to offer them. And the most important thing we can give them is a good education to serve as the foundation for their lives. But as it stands, the Little Rock School District (LRSD) is not providing that.

instead of welcoming me as a visitor or offering a compelling “hook” right off the bat, we are told that if you send your child to a little rock public school, they are incapable of receiving a “good education”. sorry all you national merit scholars throughout the lrsd (which has the most of any district in the state) and sorry all you teachers and administrators who pour your life into the education of your students and sorry to parents who send your children off to the schools they pay for with their tax dollars, if your child goes to a traditional public school rather than a charter school, they are incapable of receiving a “good education.”

of course, this is just on the first page, within the first 3 sentences. attempting to move past my initial impressions and keep the open mind that i entered with, i decided to visit the link called, fact sheets, hoping that this would be where i would find the meat of the compelling information about charter schools.

no luck. the first thing you find in the submenu is a page called, little rock school district: investment versus performance. on said page, instead of telling me all the great things about charter schools and how my children might benefit from them, i’m given a bulleted list of what’s wrong with the little rock public school system. included in that list is the following point:

The Little Rock School District has failed to deliver in every respect, especially for our children.

translation: if you send your children to one of these schools, you are doing a great disservice to your children. (if my interpretation is unfair, please let me know.)

with my open mind quickly closing, i decided to give one more submenu—public charter schools: education with accountability—a try, as it sounded like it might go into some of the benefits of their programs. sadly, the very first bullet point begins with, unlike LRSD schools…. once again, they’ve chosen to frame everything within the confines of a put-down of other local public schools. certainly, there is some helpful information on that page, but it’s offset by a tone of defensiveness and a bit of institutional arrogance.

once again, my point isn’t to offer a defense of traditional public schools (namely the little rock school district). quite frankly, i’m regularly put off with the actions of the little rock school board, particularly in their decision to pursue a lawsuit regarding this whole charter school kerfuffle (bonus points for using the word kerfuffle!). as stated, i do, ultimately, prefer traditional public schools but i went with a 100% open mind to the charter schools website to learn about what they can offer and get the real information about who and what they are.

instead of finding out what they are, i only found out what they aren’t.

you see, when you define yourself by what you aren’t, you create suspicion and distrust and live within the context of constant critique. when you tell people what you are, you project a tenor of trust and confidence and pride in what you have to offer.

if charter schools offer unique programs and individualized care and something more, then i want to find that on their website. instead, all i was able to find was information about another institution—one that, in theory, is a partner, not a competitor. sure, i learned a few pieces of information about charter schools, but i felt just as dirty as if i watched a political smear ad.

one of the ultimate ironies of the website is their mission statement, which states:

Our mission is to join parents, business leaders and concerned citizens together to help create a better and more productive learning environment for our children in order to create a better, more equipped generation of leaders for Little Rock. Speak up for Little Rock, speak up for Arkansas.

you see, their mission statement—in the midst of a website that tells me what they aren’t—tells me what they are. it tells me they want to do positive things for our city. it tells me they have interest in the future of our children. it tells me they want to partner with a wide array of citizens to make better education possible. it tells me what they are, not what they aren’t.

so, whether it’s local charter school advocacy groups or individual people or other businesses, live under the banner of being forthright in what you are rather than what you are not. when you do that, you might just keep an open mind open.

9 Comments

  1. Garret Myhan says:

    Ryan, What are your thoughts on homeschooling and
    University Model schooling? Garret

    • ryan says:

      thanks for the comment, garret.

      as opposed to my (still) open mind about charter schools, i’m basically 100% opposed to home schooling. i believe education is about 25% books & 75% social dynamics, and home school just doesn’t allow for that (even with home school associations).

      as for university model schools, i just simply don’t have enough facts to have an informed opinion. i know some of the basic ideas, but not enough to form an opinion worth sharing.

  2. Lauren Harper says:

    This is interesting. I’m not familiar with the group or website, but I actually did my graduate school thesis on the performance difference between students in traditional public schools versus public charter schools. I actually chose my topic because of my own skepticism for charter schools.

    • ryan says:

      i would genuinely love to read that research. would you mind either posting some of your findings (in the comments) or emailing me your work (ryan [at] beingryanbyrd [dot] com)?

      i would greatly appreciate it. maybe i could do a follow-up post with some snippets of your findings? i’d really love to do that, so let me know.

  3. Lauren Harper says:

    Sure! I’m at work now, but I can send it to you when I get home. From a statistical perspective (I used test scores to run a t-test), charter school students are getting very close to significantly out-performing public school students. (I matched the charter schools with the nearest public school and compared demographics to ensure that the schools were, in fact, serving a demographically similar population.)In fact, I really think that in the next few years (once more data becomes available), we will begin to see a significant difference in the performance of charter school students and traditional public school students.

    I am also a huge proponent of public education, and I would much prefer to see our traditional public schools improve rather than send students to a charter school.

    My opinion? The real difference in the two groups is the parental involvement. Charter school parents are required to volunteer and spend so many hours at their child’s school, and research shows that when parents are more involved, their child performs better academically. It’s not that traditional public school parents don’t want to be involved, but I think often times, they don’t know how or their schedules won’t allow it. I mean, how many of us can up and volunteer from 1pm – 2pm in the afternoon on a regular basis? I don’t think that is realistic for many parents, but somehow, the charter schools require it and the parents make it happen.

    But again, I’ll send you the research so you can form your own opinions. I got hooked on education policy in grad school…it fascinates me.

  4. Ryan,
    As someone working full-time at a non-profit (City Year- http://www.cityyear.org) that is (and has been since 1988) supporting public schools, students, and teachers, I feel qualified to offer an opinion here. Public school alone is simply not working. It hasn’t been for a ling time. I feel that the documentary, Waiting for Superman, is a great reflection of the challenges our students and teachers face. Schools in Little Rock are still tracking (placing certain students in certain classes based on demographics) and the National Merit Scholars you mentioned are the lucky ones who were tracked into smaller, higher level classes. I don’t blame teachers, students, or local administration; it’s simply the effects of a system that we have outgrown. If you want to advocate for and help public schools in a real way, I encourage you to go to the City Year in downtown Little Rock and talk to them about the real statistics of public schools and how to help ensure that every child recieves a fair chance to graduate. There are some great public schools in Little Rock, and there are some really awful ones. I hope you wouldn’t judge someone for choosing to send their child to private school simply because they are zoned for a school that will not provide as adequately for their child.
    Also, as someone who was homeschooled for my entire life, I also encourage you to perhaps do a bit of research on homeschooling and the effects of it socially. My experience was far more social than that of my friends in traditional school, because I didn’t have to waste any time academically. Really looking forward to hearing the results of more research!

    • ryan says:

      thanks for the comment libby! your point-of-view is much-appreciated.

      a couple thoughts. first, i’m very aware and informed about the statistics regarding traditional public, charter, private and home schools (among other models of schools). i spent a great deal of time in my master’s program researching various educational models/systems, largely in relation to the sociological dynamics involved. after several years of looking at that research and actually being a youth pastor, it’s become clear to me that traditional educational settings (i.e. public schools or even private schools) are better in the developmental process of children and adolescents. it should go without saying that there are certainly exceptions (you are a shining example of one of them). an analogy is the fact that not every person who drinks and drives has a wreck (ok, that was the best analogy i could come up with despite the seemingly bad correlation of ideas…). 🙂

      you mentioned helping in a “real way”. whereas city year is a great organization that i 100% highly recommend and commend, i think the “real way” to help the public schools is to place your kids in them and get involved in constructive ways. one of the tragedies of white flight and the campaign of misinformation about public schools is that people have retreated instead of being a solution to a problem. with that said, for every one “problem” there is with traditional public schools, i could name a couple for private and home schools. unfortunately, the things that i call problems for private/home schools are ones that our society has largely chosen to accept and in some cases, lift up as values (racial/cultural segregation, singularity of viewpoint, elitism, etc).

      there are absolutely many, many broken things with the traditional public school system, but i’d rather be a part of the solution rather than one of the people who retreat due to the piles of misinformation out there. ultimately, as a parent, i want to focus on the number 1 educational factor that no one really discusses: parental involvement. it’s not about test scores (that’s a false evaluator). it’s not even about “objective” statistics. it’s about parents who care enough about their children to encourage them and be involved in the educational process. which kids go to charter, private and home schools: the ones whose parents are proactive in their educations. of course kids who come from families that actively care about their childrens’ education perform better. it only makes sense. conversely, traditional public schools are full of students who come from parents who simply don’t care. so ironically, the ones who need extra help and care the most are the ones who typically don’t get it. and then, we blame it on teachers and administrators.

      so yes, libby, i agree that the system is not functioning like it should/could be, but instead of pointing fingers and assuming that other systems are inherently better, we should all be proactive and help to make the system better.

  5. Ryan,
    Yeah I think I’m going to move past the comparison of homeschooling to drunk driving and delve straight into your statements, “it’s about parents who care enough about their children to encourage them and be involved in the educational process.” and “conversely, traditional public schools are full of students who come from parents who simply don’t care.” I definitely disagree here. In my experience, the vast majority of parents care deeply about their kids; many are simply overwhelmed by too much work and too little money to be an active influence in their kids home-life, let alone their educations.
    I feel that we are surely both advocates of ALL children receiving educations that give them skills and opportunities for success later on in life. it’s definitely not all test-scores- i agree with you that social and leadership opportunities are crucial-but the fact remains that 41% of 3rd graders in the LRSD are functionally illiterate.

    I don’t think that other systems are inherently “better”, but from what you’ve written, it’s clear that you think other systems are inherently worse. i think every parent has the right to decide what’s right for their kids and their family, but that they have to understand the risks and difficulties that will result from their decision whatever choice they make. i am happy for you guys that you are confident in your decision to support public schools in little rock; they definitely need it! i guess what i don’t understand is your antagonism towards those who are taking other paths?

    I do think that public school, as it stands now, is leaving lots of kids behind, and to me, that’s a tragedy. i am excited by leaders like michelle rhee who are challenging the system and working towards proactive change.

    obviously i totally agree with your comments about working to be proactive to make the system better; working 75 hours a week in the toughest Los Angeles public schools is no vacation! 😀

    • ryan says:

      thanks again, libby.

      largely, I think we’re on the same page. the only thing I really take umbrage with is that I’m being antagonistic toward other forms of education. first, I think I’ve been fair in researching a broad swath of educational models & have simply drawn some conclusions. I certainly feel open to those conclusions changing with new data.

      but more than anything, the whole point of this post was about being open minded to learning more about local charter schools. the fundamental starting point was me being open but being turned off by the charter school website’s antagonism.

      p.s. for what it’s worth, the drunk driving analogy was merely an analogy. no correlating meaning intended. 😉

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