I. The Villains
Over the past few weeks, three major stories came out that either directly or indirectly covered charter schools. Their headlines are below.
In many newspaper stories, there is a good guy and a bad guy.
For me, the commonality of these very different stories was that, in each of them, charter schools were either explicitly or implicitly cast as the villains.
In Kate Zernike’s story, the headline clearly points to a “sea of charter schools” as the reason Detroit’s students aren’t performing well.
The story opens with an anecdote about a child being failed by a charter school.
The growth of charters is called “competition and chaos.”
The phrases pile up on top of each other: …”unchecked growth”…”glut of schools”… “cannabilized”…”unfettered growth”…
And the most literary: “pugnacious protector of the charter school prerogative.”
As many have noted, the article failed to mention a CREDO study that found Detroit charters to be outperforming traditional schools.
Moreover, the article failed to detail that it was the traditional school system that has needed bail out after bail out – and that has been the source of much corruption.
Ultimately, charter schools grew to serve half of the students in Detroit; they outperformed the traditional sector; and, unlike the traditional sector, they did not require hundreds of millions of dollars in bailout funds.
Reasonable people can debate whether better than the existing system is good enough.
But to frame charters as the villains of Detroit public education is quite odd, especially when the traditional system is performing academically and financially worse.
Anya Kamenetz’s story covered Rocketship Schools, which serves low-income families across the country.
Anya paints a rather grim picture: “infections due to denial of restroom visits,” “hours of enforced silence,” “a culture of producing test scores at all costs.”
Rather amazingly, she ends the piece with a two paragraph quotation from the head of a local union:
It is clear: Rocketship is the villain.
Yet, no family is forced to go to a Rocketship school. Rather, they all attend because they have made a proactive decision to pull their child out of an existing traditional school, which they presumably felt was not providing a great education.
So a school gets good academic scores, creates an environment that tens of thousands families want their children to be a part of, opens it doors to any family that wishes to attend – and it is the villain. Whereas the failing school system – where according to the union leaders “parents are happy” – is not the villain.
The world feels upside down.
Kate Taylor’s piece is less directly about charter schools; rather, it is about a failing district school that is making improvements but is being forced to co-locate with an expanding Success Academy school.
On its face, the district is the villain of this story, as Kate frames the story as one of the district promising the building to a charter without giving the failing school a chance to improve.
Yet, the language of the story often hints at Success Academy being a secondary villain.
“Now, in a twist, even as it grows, J.H.S. 50 will have to give up five classrooms next year, because the Success Academy school is expanding to fifth grade… J.H.S. 50 will probably have to turn its dance studio into a regular classroom. It is likely to lose a new computer lab Mr. Reynoso financed. And several rooms will need to do double duty, as both a classroom and a music room, for instance.”
A school who has failed students for years is the good guy; the school that has incredibly high demand and is providing a great education is the one who is taking something away from children.
IV. The Failing School System is Never the Villain
The point of this post is not to say the Detroit charter sector, Rocketship, and Success Academies are the heroes. None of them are perfect.
Rather, what I’m struggling with is why these entities are painted as the villains.
In a perfect world, I’d rather that there be no villains, as I don’t blame current educators for the existing system’s failures.
But if reporters need to find a villain, why do they so often go after the educators who work in charter schools that are trying to make things better – and that often are?
Why do they go out of their way to find a villain other than the very schools that are currently failing children?
I’m not sure, but a few guesses below.
- I think the education reform community has at times over-promised on what charter schools can do, and this opens charters up to criticism when they don’t meet these promises, even if they are performing better than the traditional system.
- Emotionally, I think reporters (rightfully) empathize with plight of students stuck in failing schools – and this sometimes bleeds over to empathy with the adults working in the failing schools – adults who might lose their jobs if charters expand.
- While charter schools are generally educator led non-profit organizations, many billionaires support charter schools, and I think this support creates a suspicion that charter will increase educational inequality, akin to how the economy has seen a spike in inequality over the past two decades.
These are just guesses.
VI. A Story
Recently, I was talking to a charter school parent.
He told me that after he visited his neighborhood school he knew that he could not send his daughter to that school. He said at that point he had three options: he could get her into a charter school; he could find a second and third job to afford a private school; or he could move his family.
But he was not going to send her to a failing school.
Who is the villain?
Who is the hero?