Paula Noonan, a consistent anti-school choice/anti-charter voice in Colorado, weighed in with several interesting statements in a recent column ("NOONAN | Charter schools, ed reform overrated," Dec. 10). First, she said that charter school advocates have created a “versus” mentality when it comes to educational choices — lecturing that "as long as charter supporters see their schools as 'competitors' and generally superior to traditional public schools, a 'versus' seems inevitable." Secondly, she claims that a root cause is a “paucity of resources”, supported by a false assertion that charters receive more funding per student than traditional public schools. Both arguments are not only tired and predictable, repeated and believed by anti-choice groups for years, but are a distraction from the real causes for our challenges in education. Let’s not let them play their game so easily this time.
Few can argue, if there was ever a year to value parental choice in education, 2020 ranks near the top. With the vast majority of public school districts in Colorado succumbing to teachers unions or fear of failing to meet ambiguous health “guidelines” (rather than science or common sense), most students have been forced into online learning for the better part of a year. And while this type of educational environment may work for some (i.e., those fortunate enough to have a parent or other adult at their side), it most certainly has been a disadvantage to most. And yet, school choice provided opportunities for so many other students to safely continue in-person learning even though the traditional public schools next door have been largely shuttered.
Many, like Noonan, view charter schools as a threat to the traditional educational bureaucracy, and they use this subtle trick of blaming school choice as the cause for their “versus” mentality. But choice advocates don’t view education that way.
Competition incentivizes the provision of better products and services, and in this instance, better educational opportunities for all kids. Anyone who decries competition really is saying, “I’d rather not innovate or improve. It’s much easier to stick with the status quo.” Unfortunately, that means that students lose.
What many anti-choice types fail to recognize is that charter school advocates in fact do not believe that charters, in-and-of themselves, are necessarily superior. Not all charter schools, or any schools for that matter, are created equal. What makes charter schools effective and valuable — dare I say essential — is not their curriculum, educational model, or philosophy. Rather, an important strength is in the fact that every student is there by choice. Charter schools engage the whole family by design, and when a school must depend on families choosing to enroll their children — rather than compelled attendance — school leaders inherently strive toward transparency, overall parent engagement and participation. The same cannot always be said of traditional public schools, as demonstrated this last year. When parents have choice, a child’s future is not dictated by a zip code or street address, but rather by an environment that thrives with belonging, unity and a shared purpose.
Regarding resources, rather than acknowledge that charter schools generally are more academically successful than their traditional public school peers, Noonan takes the approach of blaming educational ills on a “paucity of resources” caused by unfair funding flowing toward charter schools and away from traditional schools. This is yet another subtle deception used by anti-choice advocates to create a wedge between parents and the truth. It is widely known, and easily confirmed, that most charter schools operate less expensively than traditional public schools. Charters only recently won a modicum of fairness under local MLOs. Charters typically still are responsible for their own facilities and capital projects; painful additional costs for their school budgets. Further, charters do not have consistent and reliable access to taxpayer dollars, often made available only to traditional public schools. This is why charters often rely on fundraising while well-funded school districts do not. Yet, in the face of those steep challenges, year after year, charters are still achieving bettter academic success.
For those paying attention, the pandemic has demonstrated like never before that a one-size-fits all education philosophy isn’t the solution. For kids to have the best opportunities, parents must be able to make decisions about their children’s educational pathway — whether that is enrolling at a neighborhood public school, a home school, charter, private, online, or other school.
When parents have choice, everyone wins. It’s time we celebrate and encourage the success of charters, provide more options to parents so they can solve the very real problems faced by their students in this current educational crisis, and not let misinformation keep our eyes closed until the last possible moment.
Rob Moulton is a founder of the Education Alliance of Colorado, a charter school advocacy organization.