Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Community Values and Education

I've written several posts before about my concerns with charter schools, voucher programs, and school choice. On the surface each one is virtually unassailable. Why not give kids a chance at better schools if we can? The propaganda surrounding each idea is such that it's hard to be taken seriously while saying that these programs aren't in the best interests of our children.

That's not even really the right way to say it. The problem, I guess, is not that the programs themselves are flawed. The problem is that as a society and as an educational system we are using these tools incorrectly.

While reading through the latest issue of New York Teacher, the newsletter of the state teachers' union, I cam across an opinion piece titled "Education needs to be a community value." In it, the author sums up my general complaint with the way charter schools in particular are used when she writes about the "prevailing emphasis on individualistic solutions to collective challenges."

Whenever I tell people that I don't think charter schools don't make much sense as an educational policy, I'm told some variation of, "But they work better than regular schools. Sure, they may not improve the system as a whole, but it's definitely better for the kids who are in them."

Let's set aside the debatable point that all charter schools are naturally better than public schools. My sense is that it's not true, but for the moment at least, let's assume it is true or at least irrelevant. The problem here is that helping one kid isn't enough.

The problems facing urban ghetto education are vast and tragic. Clearly something needs to be done. The logical solution (in my mind) is not to create a parallel school system. The logical solution is to fix the school system we have.

When we emphasize school choice, private school vouchers, or charter schools we are saying that the problems with public education are essentially unsolvable and that we need to give up on the whole system. That's not a leap I'm willing to make.

The catch for all of this is that the ostensible purpose of charter schools (to create a kind of pseudo-laboratory for educational methods) is not how the schools are actually used (to provide a refuge for a few lucky kids). I'm all for trying different things in the schools because clearly what we have now is not working as well as it should. But we don't need charter schools for that. We need public schools that are willing to try new things.

Public education is a community value and should be a community concern. Solutions that only target individuals aren't really solutions at all.

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