Getting frustrated over the debate on charter schools

I am getting frustrated about how the debate on charter schools is playing out in the public sphere. For example, this weekend I listened to a story about Campbell Brown, who is a well-known advocate who favors a range of educational reforms from removing teacher tenure to expanding school choice universally.

The link I provided summarizes Brown’s key stance: “Brown called charter schools a ‘beacon of hope’ and said there is no compromising with politicians and opponents who want to limit the number of new charter schools.”

It is this tone that drives me bonkers.

Before I get into why, though, I should give you some context on myself. I went to high school at the Marine Academy of Science and Technology and taught at a school called Communications High School. Both are schools of choice operated at the county level through the vocational school organizational structure established through the Monmouth County Vocational School District. This district essentially was an earlier form of school choice that does not neatly fit the descriptions of current popular choice trends (I guess one could call it a magnet school, but its funding mechanism is similar to a charter school). The point I am trying to make by providing this information is this: I am obviously not opposed to schools of choice because I went to one and taught at one.

However, through this experience and through my academic research I have developed a very simple and strong opinion about schools of choice: Although they at times can be an effective policy tool for educational reformers they are not panaceas, “beacons of hope,” or silver bullet solutions. Sometimes choice helps alleviate educational deficiencies, but sometimes choice does nothing to solve educational problems in a community. We should allow where it works and discourage it in contexts when it does not. There is no such thing as a universal solution in educational policy.

Driven by this well-informed opinion that is rooted in research and personal experience, I beg the Campbell Browns of the world to stop being so simple in assertions that choice is the savior and public schools are the enemies. We need to start asking questions like “In what form and under what conditions and contexts is school choice a reasonable policy tool to use? In what form and under what conditions and contexts is school choice a bad idea?”

In unison with this, we have to stop pitting these models of education against each other and create funding mechanisms that won’t undercut traditional public schools. These schools often cannot compete and are ruined by the implementation and funding formulas of charter school policy. Like I said, there are times when choice programs are an efficacious tool to use, but let’s stop with the “either/or” and the “this will solve all of our problems” rhetoric. We are smarter than that and need to act like it.