A question that we’ve been debating here on the AJC Get Schooled blog is whether charter schools have a place in high-performing districts, such as Cherokee. This debate is not limited to Georgia, but is erupting nationwide as a reform movement originally cast as a way to help students trapped in failing schools expands to communities with successful public schools.
In this broader application, the charter movement is no longer about an escape route for poor children but about greater choice for all students.
But some parents in wealthy suburbs maintain that these “boutique” charters divert vital funds from schools that are more than meeting the needs of the community. They contend that there’s no rationale for a charter school when the local education is high quality.
But the parents who want their children to learn Chinese in kindergarten counter that they deserve more public options, and that even excellent schools may not be serving every child well. Such differences of opinion are pitting neighbor against neighbor as charter school entrepreneurs recognize the potential of affluent suburbs.
Those are the dividing lines in the wealthy town of Millburn, N.J., where parents are fighting two Mandarin-immersion charter schools. Pointing out that he pays $15,000 a year in property taxes, Matthew Stewart, a founder of the Millburn Parents Against Charter Schools, told The New York Times, “Public education is basically a social contract — we all pool our money, so I don’t think I should be able to custom-design it to my needs. With these charter schools, people are trying to say, ‘I want a custom-tailored education for my children, and I want you, as my neighbor, to pay for it.’ ”
But a pro-charter parent told the Times, “This is not just about the education of my child. If we just sit back and let school districts decide what they want to do without taking into account global economic trends, as a nation, we all lose.”
Suburbs like Millburn, renowned for educational excellence, have become hotbeds in the nation’s charter school battles, raising fundamental questions about the goals of a movement that began 20 years ago in Minnesota. Charter schools, which are publicly financed but independently operated, have mostly been promoted as a way to give poor children an alternative to underperforming urban schools — to provide options akin to what those who can afford them have in the suburbs or in private schools.
More than half of Americans live in suburbs, and about 1 in 5 of the 4,951 existing charter schools were located there in 2010, federal statistics show. Advocates say many proposed suburban charters have struggled because of a double standard that suggests charters are fine for poor urban areas, but are not needed in well-off neighborhoods.
“I think it has to do with comfort level and assumptions based on real estate and not reality,” said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington, which studies and supports charter schools. “The houses are nice, people have money, and therefore the schools must be good.”
With high test scores and graduation rates to flash around, suburban school officials have had an easier time than their urban counterparts arguing that charters are an unnecessary drain on their budgets. Millburn’s superintendent, James Crisfield, said he was caught off guard by the plan for charters because “most of us thought of it as another idea to help students in districts where achievement is not what it should be.” He said the district could lose $270,000 — or $13,500 for each of 20 charter students — and that would most likely increase as the schools added a grade each year. “We don’t have enough money to run the schools as it is,” Mr. Crisfield said, adding that the district eliminated 18 positions and reduced bus services this year.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog