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How American Charter Schools Are Not the Solution to Systematic Inequality

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“Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.” - W.E.B. Du Bois, 1970

The Band-Aid Over a Bullet Wound: How American Charter Schools are not the solution to Systematic Inequality

When I was in first grade, my parents pulled me into a room and sat me on my mother’s lap. I was seven at this point, but I was always small for my age so I was still able to do this. I remember being nervous because they were acting so serious and I wondered if they were getting ready to break some bad news. I sat patiently, attempting to read their facial expressions to see if I was in trouble or if something bad had happened. And then the question came…
“Maryam…Where do you want to go to school next year?”
For the first few years of my education I attended public school. I went to B.M. Williams Primary School in Chesapeake, Virginia and to say I loved it would be an understatement. I was always “advanced” for my age. My teachers told me I read on a fourth grade level. I aced my math drills like they were nothing, and I always ended the year by taking home tons of awards and certificates such as “Best Reader” and “Most Likely to Become President.” School for me was the center of my world, not only because I was seven and what else do seven year olds do besides go to school, but also because my dad was a teacher. I always understood the value of education being that my father devoted his whole life to it. My parents came from very poor backgrounds, growing up in the slums of Philly. As a child, I remember my parents being in school for as long as I could remember. My mother went back to undergrad to finish her degree and then earned her nurse’s aid certificate and my father received two masters degree and a doctorate. Education was simply a way of life in my household. So when my parents asked my where I wanted to go to school in the fall, I did not think it mattered. School is school right? But clearly my parents were on to something that I was not. School is not the same everywhere. In fact, in the United States, there are private, public and charter options that all offer different ways to learn. Charter schools exist as simultaneously private and public entities being that they receive public funding but they operate under a written contract approved by the local school board or other organizations. The charter school movement is a rather new one stemming from the 1990s that functioned to provide the innovation of private school education at the cost of public schooling to students who would traditionally have to sacrifice one for the other. So how should one pick? Though charter schools provide an alternative option to Americans as a means to better educate our children at a reasonable cost, charter schools are definitively not the answer. Charter schools are not a viable alternative to public education simply because inequality is an American value. Therefore, restructuring public education will not rid us of classism and racism, which are embedded in the fabric of our society.

Flaws within the Root of the Charter School Movement
Upon the creation of the first charter school signed into action in 1991, over forty states in the U.S. have adopted charter school education into their curriculum (Ravitch, 1). This movement came conveniently at a time when the concept of ‘public’ was under construction. School has always been a model that is very politicized however the advent of chapter schools created a whole new platform for discussion. So who exactly is leading this conversation? As of current, American education is somewhat of a “patchwork quilt, with responsibility for funding or managing education parceled out among various jurisdictions”(Ravitch 279). In this sense, the responsibility of education is not only a federal issue about also a state specific one. The federal law then has no so over the curriculums taught in each school or even in each state, but is instead invested in the civil liberties of the students pertaining to their right to a quality education. The government however, in the case of both public and charter education, are responsible for a portion or the entirety of the funding. If we consider the original need for charter schooling as an alternative, barriers such as the need for financial assistance from the government, deter from this common goal. Charter schools were created to function as case studies in which teachers and administrators are allowed more flexibility to teach and to govern. But in their current state because of the flawed idealistic objectives of the movement, these schools do not serve as examples for public schools on how to reform traditional education.
Deficit Ideologies
Deficit ideology is at the root of inequality in the United States. Deficit ideology describes socializing people to comply with the oppressions they face as if they are the problem and what they are dealing with is entirely a consequence of their own actions (Ahlquist, 216). For example, in consideration of poverty, considering poor people impoverished because of their lack of motivation would be a deficit ideology (Ahlquist, 218). This requires us to ignore institutional inequality such as lack of equal pay, racism, sexism and misogyny. These ideologies capitalize on common stereotyping of different groups of people. As Ruby Payne is quoted as saying in here book A Framework for Poverty “There are patterns that you see. These are why individuals use these patterns, and here is what you can do to help those individuals make the transition to the “decontextualized” environment of formal schooling, if they so desire to make that transition” (Payne, 30). Payne like many, has capitalized on generalizing sectors of the American population and proposing that we address them as a whole which shared experiences and oppressions. We see these deficit ideologies all throughout American education both in public and charter institutions. The charter school movement at its core is meant to alleviate the inequalities that exist in public school however, what has truly happened is a perpetuation of the disadvantages that communities of color still face. We see this the most in the ways in which charter schools have high attrition rates. I first noticed this phenomenon when I visited a local charter school in Atlanta for predominantly black and brown, low income children. The school is only for students from first to fifth grade so I was curious as to where they ended up after graduating. I asked the vice principle who told me that they advise the children and their parents on the best school options for their kids. I asked her where fifth grade students of 2016 were headed next year and she told me that they were all going to go to the local public middle school except for one student, who just so happened to be the only white female in the class. This student told me that she tested very well so the school helped her and her parents find a private school for her in the area where she will attend on full scholarship. I was troubled by the idea that all of these incredibly bright students would end up back in the flawed system that they came from, all except for the white student who had the support of her parents and the school to make it into a better institution. If only the same could be done for the other students. If only schools did not leave the success of the student entirely in their own hands.

Business Structure of Schooling = Capitalism

At the core of American culture is the concept of capitalism. Capitalism is the root of what we refer to as the “American Dream.” As John Marsh dictates in Class Dismissed, “If the labor market is a market like any other, things that are in demand and in relatively short supply, we should see their price rise, while things not in demand and in abundant supply, we should see their price drop” (Marsh, 68). This is exactly the concept behind the American Education if we consider it in terms of the American Dream. If good education is in high supply, then the price per student should drop. In essence, schools run like any other economic market where there is a price over every student’s head.
The American Dream tells us that we are capable despite our circumstances. It tells us that we can succeed, financially that is, in spite of our oppressions (Marsh, 86). In order to do so however, we must pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We must be innovative, we must be tireless, and most of all, we must be willing to work twice as hard as others if we want to succeed. In America, if we do all of these things, we are promised financial success and happiness. In this country, anybody has the capacity to be rich, if only they apply themselves. In the charter school setting we see issues such as “replacing teachers with computers” as seen in On a Rocketship to increase the positive financial gains of the school. What we have seen in the case of public and charter schools is that there is a competitive nature that underscores the success of the schools. After the advent of federal programs such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) under the Bush administration and Race to the Top under current president Obama, charter schools are forced to compete for funding by testing well on the same standardized tests that public schools administer (Ravitch, 116). NCLB increased the government’s role in education by implementing mandatory testing (Ravitch, 119). This also attributed to the hyper accountability of charter school teachers who despite the mission of the charter school movement, are forced to teach to the test. Charter schools thus function as further extensions of public institutions because they aim for the freedom of private schools, but fall victim to the restrictions of public education.

In Conclusion Charter schooling is an idealistic endeavor. In theory, we all have the same goal. We want the best for our nations children and in a lot of ways, alternative methods of school help to alleviate some of the past shortcomings of the American school system. Where charter schools go wrong is in thinking that the solution to inequality in society lies solely in education. Children are malleable and bright. There are exceptions to the norm in every case. We see children from inner-city schools making it into Ivy League universities. We see kids with troubled backgrounds finding themselves in their studies and becoming successful contributing members of society. What we fail to realize is that the success of one does not equate to the success of all. If we apply American values of capitalism to our school system we create an environment of competition among our children that tells them that in order for them succeed, someone else must fail. These ideologies are reinforced by people like Ruby Payne who asserts, “To move from poverty to middle class or middle class to wealth, an individual must give up relationships for achievement (at least for some period of time). The issue is time; there is not enough time to have both” (Payne, 117). Payne expects poor children, who are in her eyes inherently flawed, to sacrifice in order to move out of their disadvantaged positions. This type of ideology teaches our nation’s children that they are not intended to do well because their circumstances dictate their abilities.
Charter schools do not escape any of these inadequacies. In fact, they further validate them. Instead of competing amongst themselves, they are competing with public school children; they are competing to be the exceptions of their communities. Instead our efforts need to be invested in public education, which is a basic right for all citizens of this nation. When my parents asked me in first grade where I wanted to go to school, they were not asking because they wanted a seven year old’s opinion, they were asking because where ever I ended up would have a substantial impact on my future. I grew up in a household where education was everything. My parents knew that even as involved parents, they could only do so much from their end, the rest was left up to the growth I experienced while in school. On the surface, charter schools seem like a happy medium; public dollars and private creativity. But in all actuality, the inequalities that are embedded in our public education bleed into the charter school sphere. To fix injustice in our schools we must address inequality in our principles. As Du Bois is famously quoted as saying, “The freedom to learn, curtailed even as it is today, has been bought by bitter sacrifice.” Let us not take this sacrifice for granted. We must not pretend that the Band-Aid of charter school education can alleviate the bullet wound of our ugly past. Instead we need to start with ourselves and realize that American Dream is really a nightmare.

Works Cited
Ahlquist, Roberta, Paul Gorski, and Theresa Montaño. Assault on Kids: How Hyper- accountability, Corporatization, Deficit Ideologies, and Ruby Payne Are Destroying Our Schools. New York: Peter Lang, 2011. Print.

Marsh, John. Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way out of
Inequality. New York, NY: Monthly Review, 2011. Print.

Payne, Ruby K. A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Highlands, TX: Aha! Process,
2005. Print.

Ravitch, Diane. Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. Print.

Whitmire, Richard. On the Rocketship: How Top Charter Schools Are Pushing the
Envelope. Print.

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