By Edwin H. Smith
Advocates of charter schools claim they can offer something traditional public schools cannot. Each charter school touts its own special conditions for success: longer hours, better approaches, less bureaucracy, etc. Even though six charter schools in Philadelphia are being investigated for irregularities, their improved achievement scores - as well as fewer discipline problems in some cases - seem to be convincing arguments for dismantling traditional schools in favor of charters.
However, as much as we all yearn for a neat answer to our educational problems, the current charter school model is not it. Despite constant claims that charter schools do much more with exactly the same students, they don't.
Recently, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited and praised two Philadelphia public schools. They found that the traditional McDaniel Elementary School had made admirable progress. But Mastery Charter Schools' Shoemaker Campus, which was a traditional high school until 2006, had made giant leaps in social and academic progress - all while purportedly educating the same students in the same building.
But there appears to be a considerable amount of hype in Mastery's claims. Mastery Charter Schools' Web site says parents and prospective students "must attend a mandatory information session in order to apply to a Mastery school." Only then are students selected by lottery.
This points up a crucial distinction between charter schools and traditional public schools, which policy makers are glossing over. And it explains why some charters are working better than traditional schools, sometimes with fewer qualified teachers and a much higher teacher turnover rate: Requiring any parental involvement effectively discourages the enrollment of those students whose parents won't participate. The children of those parents are the ones most likely to be the cause of school disruptions.
The Philadelphia School District couldn't even get students' parents to fill out and send in permission forms for free school meals. It had to resort to giving free meals to every student in many schools.
These same parents probably wouldn't bother to attend a charter school's information session. They offer a marked contrast to the Brandywine School District parents who were lining up at 2 p.m. on a Sunday to try to enroll their children in certain schools the following Monday.
State Sen. Jeff Piccola (R., Dauphin), a sponsor of legislation to overhaul charter school oversight, recently noted that "parents make a commitment to send the child to a charter."
Meanwhile, the positive impact that traditional public schools once had for the children of unwilling, unconcerned parents can't survive if committed parents' children continue to abandon traditional public schools.
My own family started out lacking, yet my mother sought out opportunities for us. If I were growing up now, I'd be in a charter school.
My wife, meanwhile, lived a haphazard childhood. Her parents wouldn't lift a finger even to sign for a free school trip, and they wouldn't have wasted their time applying to a charter school, either. My wife never would have become the capable, responsible person she is today without strong traditional public schools.
The topic of our children is so emotionally powerful that it can stop us from addressing uncomfortable realities in our society. We don't want to compromise the safety and well-being of our children, but if we don't look at the long-term consequences of the charter school movement, we will.
The current charter school solution is producing an increasingly two-tiered educational system. Many of our Founding Fathers saw the folly of this. Dr. Benjamin Rush saw that providing a quality education for all would protect us from the "ravages of ... unprincipled and idle boys," while Thomas Jefferson championed the proper education of the "common people."
Later, the "common" or public school, which instructs families together within an educational system, became the model for fulfilling these patriots' dreams. That fulfillment will be impossible unless we return to a system in which all schools must demonstrate results in educating all children within their boundaries - not just selected ones. No innocent child's opportunity to meet his full potential should be denied because his lot is to have misguided parents.