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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Charter Schools with a Velvet Rope

I love charter schools. I've worked in and for charter schools for the last 10 years and I've never regretted it. I love them, I really do, but it's not the blind, wake-up-thinking-about-them, goofy-grin, what-faults-are-you-talking-about sort of love. It's the love that one feels after years of marriage. It's a deep, profound, eyes-wide-open and roll-my-eyes-because-I've-heard-this-story-a-thousand-times-before sort of love.

I've written about the realities of charter schools before. And I wrote about it again here. Charter schools are not a panacea. Charter schools will not solve our educational mess. While 3 of the top 5 schools in LA are charters, so are several of the schools on the bottom of the heap. Charter schools are not going to be consistently better or worse than existing public schools. Some are great, others suck in ways that are hard to explain to people who've not seen them in action.

Charter schools are public schools. They are not allowed to charge you to come. They aren't allowed to make demands of you that a traditional public school cannot make also. They are obligated to serve all comers. Most charter schools I've seen were created by well-meaning and good people who earnestly believe that what they are doing is going to provide options for children who might otherwise not have had any. Charter schools in Los Angeles provide art for the artless, dance for the danceless, second chances for the recently clueless, opportunities for those with otherwise limited reach, and alternatives for those who just don't fit in the industrial classroom.

But just like in a marriage, there are limits and my personal limit is when people of privilege use charter law to build a school that is designed to exclude, rather than include, students in need. Two of our better known charter elementary schools in Los Angeles, The Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts and Larchmont Charter Elementary have been finding ways to select certain families and children based on criteria such as financial and professional abilities and granting them preferred admittance in exchange for organizing fundraisers and donating volunteer hours. To me, this is an inexcusable violation of the spirit of the charter school movement in California and if it is allowed to continue, it opens the door to again creating the same inequities in public education that I and others have started charter schools to fix.

Even though both schools still employ a lottery for some of their seats, allowing some socio-economic diversity, Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts is serving a population that is only 40% free and reduced lunch and is in a neighborhood where the local district elementary, Glassell Park Elementary, serves 89% disadvantaged students. Glassell Park Elementary is not a bad school, but I would bet that there are 40 kids who go there who would rather go to the school where the Jonas Brothers played at the "Back to School" event down the street.

Exclusivity in charter admissions is an abomination and I am infuriated by it.

The bad actions of these two schools, and my suspicion is that they are not the only two, are putting the great works of hundreds of other charters at risk. It is wrong behavior. It is the behavior of those who elevate the needs of a few over the needs of the many.

It is the attitude of privilege in action.

It's only been in recent months that the national dialogue has allowed us to discuss the conflicting interests and power inequities of class in our country. Up until Occupy Wall Street, class conflict was mostly viewed as domestic dispute so it was politely ignored by passers-by and the victims tended to decompose quietly as they went about the daily business of making do.

The pernicious twisting of programs like public schooling, which were designed for public good and were intended as an equalizer, so that the lion's share of benefits falls to those who need them the least is the story of class struggle in education. The loophole in the law that created this opportunity must be closed. We cannot allow one of the few good things to happen to public schools in recent years to be turned into yet another place where privilege has its privileges.

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