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Commentary: All lose when charter, public schools presented as rivals


With Betsy DeVos as the secretary of education and several education bills in the Texas Legislature, the debate about charter schools is in the spotlight. As someone who has been researching schools for more than 20 years, I can tell you that regardless of which side of the debate you may fall, pitting charter schools against public schools does not lead to better education for anyone.

Research shows that most charter schools are not any more effective academically than public schools, and that there are many excellent public schools that provide numerous educational choices. Furthermore, there are parents and students who love their charter schools, those who love their public schools, and there are both charter and public schools where few parents would want to send their children.

It is unjustified to think that one type of school is better than another based on whether it is public, private or parochial without considering what makes a school effective. It is the people involved and the resources available that matter.

Schools that are effective have visionary leadership, good teachers and parental involvement. These qualities have nothing to do with whether a school is offered as a public or private option. Privatizing a school, offering choice, or moving money around from one school to the next will not necessarily make a school effective.

Charter schools have been positioned against public schools based on the idea that school choice will lead to a better education. To most Americans, choice is a cherished value, but offering school choice through charter schools is not a cure for educating all children.

For instance, if your child is gifted or has autism, behavioral problems or a health challenge, then you need a unique school that can provide an education. The other side of choice is that the school may be able to choose which students it will accept and educate, and that may not be your child. In fact, the evidence shows that charter schools are more segregated and serve more advantaged students than public schools do.

Many families experience violence, substance abuse and unemployment and it is unrealistic to think that charter schools are more effective than public schools when faced with such social challenges. How can the choice of a charter school improve the education of your child when you are a single mother with a child that has attempted suicide, or a family with two working parents who are facing cancer, or your child is addicted to substances? These are the human conditions that all schools encounter. School choice alone will not make a difference and competition is not the answer.

There are some who believe that charter schools provide a better and safer education than public schools do. Some proponents advocate for more religious instruction and would like to see funds from public schools shifted directly into the hands of parents and private and parochial schools.

Shifting more public funds to charter schools, however, will not improve education in our society. If charter schools do as they choose without being held to the same accountability standards that mandate that public schools accept and educate every child, then many children will not receive an adequate education within a charter school.

There is already some evidence of this happening. For example, statistics show that charter schools serve fewer children with disabilities than public schools do. This creates a two-tier system where charter schools cherry-pick their students, and all other students default back to public schools. This problem would only magnify in Texas because in our state schools are funded through property taxes.

Both ideology and money drive the school choice and charter school movement. But the facts are that all kinds of schools can be funded and structured in ways that allow them to be safe and effective.

If school choice prevails in Texas or nationally without appropriate accountability safeguards, it will only increase educational disparities that already exist. Instead, lawmakers, parents and educators need to make sure that safe, equitable and effective schools are in every community. These are the only school choices that need to be made.

Franklin is the Stiernberg/Spencer Family Professor in Mental Health and associate dean for doctoral education in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.



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