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The Charter School Conundrum: Following the Sage Advice of the Cheshire Cat

written by: Ellis Scott • edited by: Carly Stockwell • updated: 5/2/2013

Education, like every other industry is constantly changing. The field of education as a whole is at an interesting point as charter schools are popping up all over the country. Although access to the schools is competitive, are they really as beneficial as some claim?

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    The Charter School Conundrum A single charter school in a sea of public schools is a great idea for creating a higher level, higher functioning school of choice. The problem is that many charter schools in one community changes the game and can create some interesting issues.

    In my community, there are quite a few charter schools. The longer these schools exist, more teachers, parents, and community members are starting to see the value of them. There are many reasons for this but one of the main reasons is that there seems to be fewer disciplinary issues in the classroom, which means more learning is taking place. This is mostly because of the option charter schools have in revoking the privilege of a student to be there. Simply put, if a student refuses to comply with school wide expectations, the charter school can tell them to go to school elsewhere.

    This attracts teachers, as they believe they will spend more time teaching and less time dealing with behavior, thus giving the charter school its choice of top notch teachers. It attracts parents because they want their children in a school where there is less nonsense, thus giving the school it’s choice of students. So a well-run charter school can funnel the top notch teachers and students into their school while at the same time funneling any students with disciplinary issues (which usually correlates with academic performance) to other schools that must accept and teach them.

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    The Problem

    A regular public school can’t just tell a parent (as we used to do at the charter school I worked for) “maybe this just isn’t the right school for your child”. The problem is that as more charter schools are created, there are fewer options for those students who are asked to leave these schools or are never accepted. The saddest part about it is that as the system funnels students into these traditional schools, it still grades and assesses both schools by the same criteria. Is it any wonder that many charter schools are able to keep their academic performance high? They have their choice of students and teachers, and are even able to cap their numbers to keep from busting at the seams.

    It would be the equivalent of telling a coach that he will accept and coach every one that applies for his team. At the same time, telling the coach steps will be put in place that will make it extremely difficult for him to kick somebody off the team. Then you tell another coach he will be able to hand pick his team and kick anybody off who doesn’t perform. After doing this, wouldn’t it be ridiculous to then be perplexed as to why the coach who hand-picked his players wins more. It should be obvious.

    The question is what are we going to do with all these ”regular” schools as more and more children are funneled into them because charter schools won’t accept them? There are a variety of ways to deal with this. One way is for a community to throw their hands up and say “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” This is what seems to be the easiest solution and it seems to be what is happening. More and more schools seem to be converting or putting the discussion to convert on the table.

    Unfortunately, these newly converted schools will then be able to funnel their problematic children out and to another school, which will further accelerate the problem. Another option I’ve heard people suggest is that entire districts begin applying for charter status, so that every school is a charter school. I don’t know what that would do, but it would certainly force the issue if it happened because it would create students who are essentially locked out of schools with nowhere to go.

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    Where do we Go?

    Alice and the Cheshire Cat Society must take a look at where this road is leading if we want to avoid an educational catastrophe in the future.

    In Alice in Wonderland, there is a wonderful conversation between Alice and Cheshire Cat.

    Alice said “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

    "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.

    "I don't much care where –" said Alice.

    "Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.

    Where are we going with this and where does the road end? Unlike Alice I think society does care about education and about where we end up. We must come up with some creative solutions to address this rising problem or we will simply end where we end, wherever that may be. Perhaps we should listen to the wise advice of Cheshire Cat and figure out where we want to go so that we end up somewhere on purpose instead of by accident.