A Providence Journal editorial on Thursday, September 14, “Some schools lead the way” praises charter schools for outstanding performances on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests. They are described as “heroic schools…in the urban core,” and are held up as proof that “the old canard that poverty is an insurmountable barrier to achievement is just plain false.” Further, the Journal declares that the traditional public schools had low test scores because, out of apathy, they accept an academic status quo that cheats poor and minority students.
The editorial assumes that because students in both charter and traditional schools are poor, they are the same demographic. This is wrong. There is one big difference: to be considered for enrollment into a charter school in Rhode Island, prospective students must submit an application. That one seemingly small detail is actually a formidable barrier for a great many students in the urban core. If you have lived or worked among poor urban children, as I have for two decades as a high school teacher, you will immediately see the problem.
The need to fill out and submit an application divides poor children into two distinct groups. In one group are the children who although poor, come from relatively stable homes with at least one parent or guardian who is somewhat available and invested in their education. In the other group are the children in dysfunctional families or without families, the seriously disabled, those who’ve just arrived and can’t speak or read English, those in group homes, and the homeless.
In other words, the students who are most at risk of doing poorly on the PARCC tests don’t submit applications and therefore can’t affect the scores of the charter schools. They do affect the the public schools whose mandate is to accept every child and to do their best to educate all of them without exception, from kindergarten until twelfth grade. This can involve huge commitments of both time and money to educate someone who, for example, is seriously disabled, or who doesn’t read or write in any language and has never set foot in a school. It most certainly presents an enormous challenge to the classroom teachers who must figure out how to educate children with widely disparate needs, and know that day after day all year long, there will be new children arriving. That is heroic!
It’s time to level the playing field and eliminate the application process. Charter schools can simply accept all the students who are selected from their traditional school districts by a random process. The charters would then keep these children unless their parents objected; they would not have the option of sending them back to the traditional schools if they don’t work out. Then at last they would have the same mix of high risk and low risk poor students as the traditional schools have. Once equalized, charter school test scores would go down. Test scores could no longer be used to demoralize the students and attack the teachers of traditional schools.
Elimination of the application process is a simple remedy for the urge to compare apples to oranges. We don’t have to accept that our urban charter schools are a special category of publicly financed school, drawing off the most able public school students to enjoy the charter schools’ sparkling new facilities, exciting media profiles, attractive young teachers, and the financially rewarding interest of wealthy businessmen.
Our public education system is based on the belief that all children, without exception, deserve equal opportunity. However, private schools, parochial schools, exam schools, and now charter schools filter off children by wealth, test skills, and motivation. This has an enormous impact on traditional public school classrooms as well as on test scores. By eliminating the application process for charter schools, we can at least make the public school system work the way it’s supposed to.