Wednesday, June 18

QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT CHARTER SCHOOLS

ALFIE KOHN USA TODAY Charter schools run the gamut from inspiring to wretched. But the whole idea of "publicly funded private schools," as one critic calls them, is unsettling. And the prospect of more charters managed from afar by business-like entities trying to pump up test scores is truly frightening.

Sure, it's great to give local educational visionaries a chance to experiment. But we should ask:

- Will charters strengthen public education - or pave the way for vouchers and other privatization policies? As superintendents George and Mary Garcia warned, "The law of supply and demand, where winners make all the money and losers go broke, is a tragic idea to introduce into an institution whose purpose is to transmit democratic values and ensure equity for all."

- Are charters inclusive, or do they increase segregation of students by race, income and special needs? A 2003 Harvard study found that 70% of African-American children attending charters were in schools where almost all students were minorities.

- Do charters really promote innovative teaching? It's present in some schools, but there's no evidence that the charter movement itself improves educational quality.

In fact, charter schools don't even have higher average test scores once you adjust for school and student variables. Studies, including one released in March by Western Michigan University researchers, consistently show either no difference or slightly poorer performance for charter students. . .

In any case, test scores mostly reflect family income or how much time was spent preparing kids for the tests, often at the expense of meaningful learning. Plenty of celebrated schools with rising scores are just glorified test-prep centers. Sadly, bottom-line-oriented management organizations may use tedious scripted curricula just to raise scores.

Aren't public schools supposed to be controlled by the community? It's time to worry whether charters are run by distant companies, serve homogeneous populations, focus on standardized tests, or weaken our commitment to democratic public education.

Alfie Kohn's 11 books include The Schools Our Children Deserve and The Homework Myth. Learn more: Politics and corporate power Education

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