A false debate over charter schools
For a fair number of people, the long-running debate over expanding charter schools in the state has become a bit tedious.
Those people aren’t parents like Dawn Foye.
Foye is a Roxbury mother whose 7-year-old son is a first-grader at KIPP Academy, a charter school in Hyde Park. For her, the school has been a godsend. She says her son, who has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, has found at KIPP all that was missing at his public school, where he struggled to cope with his special needs.
“I try not to cry about it,” Foye said the other day. “But it’s been such a struggle for us.”
I was talking to Foye because we’re about to hear a lot about charters. Governor Charlie Baker, a longtime proponent, has filed a bill that would lift the existing cap on charters. Meanwhile, a ballot question that would do much the same thing is slated to go before the voters next year. (Legislative approval would render the ballot question moot.)
On the surface, the main talking points in the battle are familiar. Proponents insist charter schools are laboratories for innovation that provide alternatives for parents and students who would otherwise have few options. Opponents, and they are many, argue that the schools drain away resources that could be used to improve conventional public schools and that the perception of their effectiveness is substantially overrated.
Critics also maintain that charters are an abandonment of the commitment to educate all students. Improving struggling schools, they say, is the real solution.
Foye said her son’s struggles with school began in kindergarten. And so did her frustrations. She was looking for help but instead, she says, she kept having the same infuriating conversation. “They kept telling me what he couldn’t do,” she said. “I was looking for someone to meet him where he was and help me figure out what to do.”
As first grade approached, she sought out schools that might be a better, more sensitive, fit. But her son didn’t get into any of the public schools she sought.
At the same time, she applied to 13 charter schools. “We didn’t really find KIPP — it was more like they found us,” Foye said.
Why has this experience been so much better?
Quite simply, KIPP educators put no limit on her son’s potential, Foye said. The positive approach was part of the lesson plan. “They tell me, ‘This is what we’re doing at school, and now this is what you need to do with him at home,’ ” she said. And “It’s a very community- and family-oriented situation.”
Foye is already thinking about where her son will go to high school; his issues aren’t going to go away and KIPP ends at eighth grade
Foye is well aware of the battle over charter schools. “I feel really bad for the other parents just like me who are struggling,” she said. “I’m a product of the Boston Public Schools and I think I turned out pretty well. But as long as there’s a cap, it takes away from your ability to make decisions for our kids.”
The problem with the whole charter vs. public school debate is that it revolves around a false choice. Of course, public schools must be supported — and they are. But it strikes me as folly to say parents shouldn’t have choices. Why shouldn’t they have alternatives to schools that have yet to be fixed?
Despite energetic opposition from some corners of the educational establishment — particularly unions — the charter cap is likely to be lifted one way or the other, and the sooner the better. It’s time to give more parents like Dawn Foye the choices they deserve.