Jan LaBonty on charter schools
Another MEA-MFT member, Jan LaBonty, has written an excellent guest editorial exposing on the myth of charter schools. Jan is a professor of education and human sciences at the University of Montana in Missoula.
Also read MEA-MFT member Amanda Curtis's editorial on charter schools.
Charter school support stems from more than educational concerns
The subject of charter schools has been mentioned in several political conversations and debates this year. Those who advocate for charter schools, which are funded with tax dollars, do so claiming the need for educational choice, the fact that other states have charter schools and the false notion that the educational system in Montana is weak, if not failing.
Montanans do have choice in education for their children: public schools, alternative schools, private schools, parochial schools and home schools. However, it’s one thing to champion choice, it’s another thing to ask other taxpayers to finance that choice. A great deal of transparency accompanies tax dollars to public schools; both the Office of Public Instruction and individual schools have detailed websites where interested citizens can find out more about the qualifications of the faculty, administration, and staff, the academic goals, composite test scores, facilities, extracurricular programs and what is being served for lunch.
By contrast, in charter schools, a lack of openness and adherence to stringent academic requirements has all too often led to grave misuse of public funds. Please Google charter schools just in Florida and Texas and examine the number of their school personnel indicted for fraud, mismanagement of millions of dollars in tax money, and failure to comply with state requirements for attendance, academic testing and special education.
The argument that other states have charter schools so we should too sounds like something out of middle school, the “everyone else’s parents said ‘yes’ ” claim. Other states also have a sales tax, nuclear power plants, subways and factory farms. Why would Montana want to adopt the educational programs of states that fall far below us on every measure of academics? Nationally, only 17 percent of the students who attend charter schools outperform their peers in regular public schools, 37 percent actually do worse and 46 percent do no better on standardized tests of reading and math. I could find few examples of charter schools where the student population outperformed Montana students on any academic measure and no charter schools where per pupil spending was the same or less.
Yes, there are successful charter schools, such as Seed, a charter boarding school in Washington, D.C. It serves disadvantaged youth in the area and is publicly funded with $42,500 every year for every student, over four times what Montana currently spends per pupil. The pupil/teacher ratio is 8 to 1. Seed’s graduation rates are finally up to 50 percent; in Montana the current high school graduation rate is 83 percent. Are taxpayers ready to foot that bill for more than a handful of students with such poor success?
Ignoring how well Montana compares to the other 49 states when measured on test scores (the upper third) and the unique geography of our state (lots of isolated, rural communities where no charter schools have ever had any interest or proven success) these supporters somehow maintain that the presence of charter schools is necessary. This is a classic example of pretending that a problem exists when it doesn’t so that drastic measures can be put in place.
Of course, we would like our high-school graduation rate to be 100 percent, but currently it ranks an enviable sixth in the country. Teacher salaries in Montana rank toward the bottom: 43rd. Public schools in Montana are already doing more with less without significant tax dollars being siphoned off to fund a charter school experiment.
Because the United States guarantees a free education to ALL children, parents know that if they change their minds about home schooling or if their kids don’t flourish in a private school (or get expelled) or if their charter school is shut down they can bring their children to the nearest public school, in the middle of the year or the middle of the week, and those children will immediately be assigned to a classroom, given a teacher (or teachers), and provided with materials.
But it takes a commitment from all of us to make that possible. Funneling much-needed, limited resources to charter schools weakens public education. Given the pitiful track record of charter schools, the support for them seems completely disconnected from any sincere educational concern.
Jan LaBonty of Missoula is a professor of education and human sciences. The opinions expressed in this column are her own.