As a high school teacher and professor I've often dreamt of having my own high school, one designed in the spirit of all of my ideas about what education should and shouldn't be.
My pretend school is called the Progressive Institute of Student Awesomeness (PISA).
PISA teachers would have autonomy and high expectations and job security. Class sizes are small -- 18 to 20 students at most -- and the faculty is overpaid so handsomely that some feel guilty about receiving their checks each month. In reality, they'll know they're worth their wages and then some.
A, B, C, D and F are relics of another system. Student progress is charted through portfolio defenses of learning, held in concert with volunteer members of the public.
Teachers receive free tuition to take courses at the best local public university, each expected to either possess or work towards Master's degrees in pedagogy and content. Part of the job at PISA is to contribute to the scholarship on teaching and learning through professional reading, writing, and sharing with others.
PISA students would experience mandatory arts programs. Their performances and exhibits are a constant part of the school day.
Discussion and dialogue highlight academic classes, raising expectations through meaningful talk. Community service is required for graduation. We'd work smart and play hard. There's not one test given to our students that wasn't created by our faculty.
When students, teachers, administrators, and parents pass through the front doors, they feel good and safe and at home.
PISA is the school to which all others in the country are measured, the proverbial benchmark, boasting the highest ACT scores in the land.
And if I could have it all rolled together into one awesome package, if I could create my charter school, well...
Above and beyond all of my progressive ideas about school, I believe in public education above all else. No matter how great, the imagined PISA hurts public education and hurts our country because it stands alone, or represents the elitist nature of the charter, and can't be replicated to serve the interests of all.
No one left behind and no one excluded from the best we can muster. Those are the ideals we should pursue as we seek to enhance our public schools. Shouldn't every student have a school like PISA?
Being anti-charter isn't a popular position in our climate of privatization. Our own president and education secretary have worked tirelessly to expand charters during their time in office. Pro-charter films like The Lottery, Waiting for Superman, and Won't Back Down have helped these anti-public ideas permeate American culture. In the face of a public education system falsely held out as failing, alternatives of any kind are attractive when shown in the light of private-sector propaganda.
From my way of thinking, charters in their origin -- as a tool for innovation -- were an okay idea, but that's the extent of my support for them. Unfortunately, they are currently trapped in the accountability-crazed school choice narrative, one that has effectively pitted all schools against one another in an Orwellian version of social Darwinism.
Who's got the highest scores? What's in it for my child the others be damned? Compete, compete, compete. And they're spreading though still a modest part of the national picture of education -- 4 percent of all schools.
Great public schools are the cornerstone of our society. Equitable education in America must be for everyone. Charter schools hurt public education and should be closed not expanded. They disrupt the learning dynamics in any given community by taking students away from others and by leaving students behind, especially those without family or personal resources to leave their home public school.
When charter schools succeed, I cringe. I believe that the schools-worth of students belong with their peers, helping to raise everyone in our American society, not just the few who are chosen by a lottery or whose parents can get them to the charter or private school. (author's note: I cringe in a different, elongated tone for the students when charter schools fail or are demonstrated to be corrupt).
Students who leave for charters hurt the public schools by further demonstrating to the children left behind that their situation is bad but will probably be worse in the future. Charter schools promote a perverse form of competition and school choice that some members of our society won't get. Since in that way they aren't really public schools at all, they should be closed immediately: the good ones, the bad ones, and the ugly ones.
The big picture I see shows me that charters aren't the point, vouchers and a dual track school system are the point. Vouchers are the goal of charterization. Our country doesn't want a charter school on every corner, the elite decision makers want to be able to provide vouchers so their children can attend So Smart Private Academy on the public dime, an act sure to further undermine and defund egalitarian public education.
I gained a disturbing new perspective on private schools when I moved to the south seven years ago -- the Southern private schools are a mirror of the pro-charter dual system of separate and unequal education.
Drive to Anywhere, Southern State, USA and look around for the private school and public school. It's Jim Crow all over again with near complete segregation by race, something a colleague formally linked to expanding charter schools, not only in terms of race but also ethnicity and class. Is this the country we want?
Charters are a weapon of mass distraction, nothing more than idea candy or a freshly-painted plank in a political party platform. They get lots of play on public radio and some of the schools are successful by narrow measures. But stacked measurements and positive press don't obscure the deeper realities of elitism and profit-driven private takeover of a cherished public institution. We should focus all of our energy and efforts towards providing a PISA like school for all students in America, not diverting attention or resources -- teachers, money, and fellow students -- to charter or private schools.