In a democratic society, public education is essential for producing an informed, productive and engaged citizenry. Yet many of our public schools, particularly those located in low-income inner-city communities, fail to deliver on that mission. How can we solve that problem and ensure that all Kansas students receive the excellent education that they deserve?
The solution offered by some is to bypass our public school systems altogether, introducing alternatives like charter schools into the educational “marketplace” and shifting the responsibility for providing a high-quality education from the state onto vulnerable families. This is not a viable, scalable solution for ensuring educational excellence for all Kansas students.
Proponents of charter schools, which are taxpayer-funded schools operated by private corporations or nonprofit organizations, argue that increasing the degree to which parents can choose their children’s school empowers families and facilitates market incentives that reward good schools while eliminating low performers by withdrawing their base of “customers.”
The reality of school choice is much more complex than their libertarian theory would have it, though.
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Though we would like to think that parents choose the highest-performing schools for their children, thereby allowing the free market to weed out bad schools, this is generally not how choice works in reality. Academic quality is not the sole – or even the primary – criterion that parents consider when choosing a school.
Research by myself and other education scholars has demonstrated that white parents, when given a choice, are more likely to select whiter schools for their kids, regardless of those schools’ academic quality. It is, therefore, not surprising that many studies show that the introduction of charter schools often leads to increased racial, ethnic and economic segregation in school districts.
Moreover, efficient school choice is hampered by the fact that information about school academic quality is not equally distributed across all parents. Low-income parents, particularly those working two or more jobs to make ends meet, often do not have the time or resources to engage in thorough comparison shopping. As a result, increased reliance on parental choice tends to allow affluent families to obtain seats in the top schools, relegating poorer families to lower-performing schools and thus exacerbating educational inequality.
On top of that, there is simply no convincing evidence that alternative structures like charter schools consistently narrow achievement gaps and improve student learning. Some studies find that charter schools have positive effects on learning outcomes, while others find no effect at all, or even negative effects. This wide variety of outcomes is a reflection of the wide range of school characteristics, teacher quality and student body composition with which the diverse collection of charter schools nationwide must deal.
Students in many charter schools do indeed thrive, and many charters boast student test scores far above those found in neighboring traditional public schools. But in too many other charter schools, student learning is stagnant, and far more emphasis is placed on discipline than on inspiring young minds. Particularly in inner-city charter schools attended disproportionately by black and Latino children, “No Excuses” – an organizing philosophy that stresses rote learning, test preparation, and obedience – has become the mantra of the day.
We need schools that encourage and enrich our students, and we need them to be provided equally across all Kansas communities. As the legislature works to arrive at a new public school funding formula, anti-public school activists are working hard to convince them that the system is irreparably broken and must be fundamentally overhauled or replaced with a free-market alternative. It simply is not true.
Kansas has a long history of outstanding public education. Threatening to undo that history of success in response to difficult budget realities would be a profound overreaction.
Chase M. Billingham is an assistant professor of sociology at Wichita State University.