In theory, charter schools could work and “disrupt” the system and goad public schools into doing better and everyone wins. In practice, they take resources away from fully public schools and waste that money, then management runs away and the whole movement is basically a con job.
We know what works in education. Alright so the US is not Finland but it’s fairly intuitive that healthy kids who aren’t going hungry and receive psychological counseling if needed and go to schools with enough teachers that can meet their individual learning needs will probably turn out okay and employable. Of course it helps if the teachers are motivated, which probably means compensating them well and not demonizing them (*see below for a tangential rant). After all, most have had to invest in BA or BS degrees followed by master’s in education degrees. Not cheap prerequisites to entering the profession!
The US is indeed a special snowflake but not in a good way when it comes to education policy. Our insistence on localized funding for schools results in wide funding disparities district to district and state to state. We’ve nurtured a widespread charter school movement that in general is so unaccountable to the taxpayers that fund it that the supreme court in the state of Washington recently declared charter schools unconstitutional. Finland barely has any privately run schools at all. And make no mistake, most charters are privately run schools innocently masquerading as nothing more than different versions of public schools.
We have many problems in the US that preclude a Finnish-style solution, many argue. The problems are indeed daunting and it’s difficult to know where to start when some of the problems are essentially outside of any given school’s control. Kids going hungry or not seeing doctors when sick, kids traumatized by home situations or lacking resources and support from home: these are all situations that make learning difficult if not impossible and happen before a kid even sets a foot in school.
Also, if you read or listen to the news you wouldn’t be crazy to think there’s an epidemic of horrible teachers in the US. The charter school movement is fond of blaming bad and unaccountable (tenure!) teachers. Please. Find me a teacher who spent between five and seven years and tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars training for the profession by getting two degrees and makes $55,000 a year mid-career who says he or she doesn’t care about the kids or is in it for the money and I’ll give you a year’s free subscription to this blog.
Sure, bad teachers exist, just like bad bus drivers, bad bankers and bad everyone elses exist. Judging a teacher’s performance is notoriously difficult and different systems developed so far have found as few as 1.5% of teachers in a district unsatisfactory to as many as 18% in another district “ineffective.” Eighteen percent is a little higher than anyone would like to see, admittedly, but that number is from a pilot program looking at 20 New York City schools, one of the most challenging districts in the country.
(Here, I want to make it clear that I am not questioning the motives or integrity of teachers or even many administrators working for charter schools. The whole point of this piece, which I’m afraid I haven’t made very clear yet, is that charter schools as established in most of the country have nothing new to offer and instead take resources away from avenues that we already know can get results.)
What’s clear from what we know about how kids learn and what Finland has shown is that we don’t need charter schools in order to re-invent the wheel. We know what the wheel looks like and we have the design plans; we can make it. It’s hard, giving all American kids equal opportunities to receive good educations in schools with enough resources and competent and motivated teachers, but it’s not impossible. It’s a matter of priorities.
*Tangential rant: When did Americans collectively decide that working ought to be a miserable experience we endure in order to not starve or sleep on the street and maybe get to own a flat screen TV? And why is there so much outrage aimed at people in a profession that often requires 9 to 10 or even more hour days for 180 days during which they have to lead large groups of children or prepubescents or teenagers all day? Do we really think the people we entrust to handle so much of our children’s formative years deserve such mediocre pay or ridicule for demanding pensions so they can live decently in retirement? What is wrong with us?