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Charter schools don't solve real problems.

In August 2005 the Humanists of Florida Association opened the first Humanist charter school: the Carl Sagan Academy. Although the academy's mission is admirable, the school is simply replicating the ideals inherent in public education. Qualities such as scientific reasoning, critical thinking, and democratic principles should be central to every public school's mission. But the academy, like all charter schools, diverts attention away from real problems within the American educational system. The Humanist community shouldn't be detracting from the problem at hand by participating in the charter school movement that instead produces poor academic results, perpetuates the stratification of society, advances a parochial educational atmosphere, and reduces public education funding.

Originally designed to swap autonomy for accountability, charter schools were an experiment in deregulation. A distinct feature of charter schools is that they are unrestricted by many public school requirements. The original theory was that a less restricting environment would produce results that surpassed public schools.

However, the claim that increased autonomy leads to enhanced educational outcomes cannot be verified by recent studies conducted on national charter school performance. The National Assessment of Educational Progress conducted in 2003 found that charter school students had lower achievement than their public school counterparts "translat[ing] into about a half year of schooling?" Test scores remained lower even after the NAEP adjusted for the higher enrollment rate of minority students.

A closer examination of charter schools reveals that students are performing below public education trends. Less than satisfactory performance has been linked to the inability of charter schools to attract quality educators. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office of the Department of Education, where state law permits, charter schools are exempt from requiring teacher certifications. Only 9 percent of public school teachers are working with out certification, while 43 percent of charter school teachers aren't certified. Furthermore, as B. Fuller, M. Gawlik, E. K. Gonzales, S. Park, and G. Gibblings point out in their 2003 report Charter Schools and Inequality: National Disparities in Funding, Teacher Quality, and Student Support, charter school teachers are more likely to have little or no experience in the classroom. Barring of collective bargaining agreements, no contracts, and unsatisfactory pay could be to blame for the disproportionate amount of unaccredited and inexperienced teachers in charter schools.

One of the vital roles of public education is to provide all students with an equal opportunity to succeed. Proponents of charter schools have criticized this aspect of public education, citing substandard schooling in urban areas as an impediment to equality. Charter schools were originally intended to provide lower income and minority families with an educational choice. However, the current state of the charter school system threatens instead to amplify the socio-economic disparities among students. As research shows, some charter schools are guilty of isolating children in social or ethnic-specific enclaves. Of the African American students who attend charter schools, for example, the authors of the 2003 report find that three-fourths of them are enrolled in 273 schools. Studies also show that in some states Latino students tend to be overrepresented in charter schools and that these schools tend to spring up in lower income areas. This trend can be linked both to state laws that encourage charter schools to serve disadvantaged children and the susceptibility of inner-city schools to forced conversion under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Rather than providing a competitive educational environment, however, many charter schools serving disadvantaged students perpetuate existing class barriers by hiring uncertified teachers and providing substandard special education services. According to the aforementioned 2003 study, predominantly African American charter schools are more likely to have unaccredited teachers. And though 43 percent of charter school attendees are eligible for lunch subsidies, only 4.5 percent of these schools receive Title I federal funding to support such programs. In addition, individualized learning plans (IEPs), in place for students who qualify for special education, are only being used by 11 percent of charter schools.

Moreover, as group-specific charter schools materialize they threaten to create a more polarized society. Many charter schools are based on the concept of group rights--the belief that curriculum should be tailored to a specific ethnic or social group. Some opponents of charter school education maintain that this type of insular learning actually perpetuates the stratification of society. The public education system was prized for uniting students from diverse backgrounds and fusing together our disparate society by passing on shared knowledge and values. When the shared experiences of public education are removed, the resulting society is no longer made up of groups of individuals trying to find common ground but rather of ethnic and social enclaves divided adversarily.

In line with the issue of segregation is the argument that theme charter schools create a parochial learning environment. The school choice system as a whole encourages parents to select schools for their children that further the parents' own beliefs and values. Unlike public education, charter schools are designed to operationalize parental concepts of childrearing by allowing parents to have influence over curriculum. Thus charter schools have become "identity-building institutions" molded to further reflect the specific identity, politics, ideals, and beliefs of the community they serve. It also opens up the possibility that individuals can misuse the system and impress upon a school and students their own particular and perhaps idiosyncratic beliefs.

Children reared in this type of environment are likely to arrive at adulthood with a very narrow view of the world. Public education was originally prized for exposing students to diverse individuals and opinions, thus challenging their preconceived notions of reality. However, theme charter schools, organized around a particular idea, fail to expose students to a balanced view of the world. They rather isolate them with like-minded individuals and indoctrinate them in a set of beliefs at a young age, much like organized religion does.

When group-specific charter schools are used as justification for the establishment of socially and ideologically segregated learning environments, the educational system walks a fine line between promoting specialization in an effort to improve education and using specialization as a means to block the views of opposing groups. Thus, by establishing a Humanist charter school and becoming part of this ideologically questionable system, the Humanist community relinquishes its ability to critique those who support charter schools for rival causes. Humanists also surrender their authority in critiquing those parents who wish to use the educational system as a vehicle to instill in children their own beliefs and values.

Beyond these problems, when students transfer out of public schools and into a charter school they take with them the monies earmarked for their education. Each child that transfers to a charter school in this manner is diverting resources away from public education--a move long opposed by Humanists. The defense of this diversion is that it will allow market forces to pressure the public schools to change in order to retain students. But by this argument charter schools aren't simply about choice. Rather, they are about triggering systemic change. When viewed through this lens, charter schools cease to be harmless experiments in government deregulation and become vehicles for large-scale restructuring.

One central argument of several Carl Sagan Academy supporters is that charter schools are the wave of the future and that the Humanist community should utilize this opportunity as a form of activism. But this shouldn't be justification for involvement in a flawed and ideologically questionable educational trend. With the Carl Sagan Academy having opened its doors the Humanist community should examine the public school system and determine if the values inherent in it are worth saving or if a system prized for uniting and educating diverse individuals should be cast aside in favor of charter schools that have been shown to produce poor academic results and stratified learning while creating a restrictive learning environment.

Lisa Swinehart, a former educator, has performed extensive research on educational policy and worked as a research assistant on a Rockefeller Grant that examined the effectiveness of faith-based organizations. References for this article are available upon request to lisa@secularstudents.org.
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Title Annotation:CREATIVE CONTROVERSY
Author:Swinehart, Lisa
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
Words:1344
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