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.