Charter vs. Public? Whichever is better, it leaves you with little insight in how to pick a school

I’ve adapted last week’s post with a few edits.

If you have ever been frustrated by the overly general and abstract questions that make presidential debates a race to the catchiest, tweetable byword, then you should be frustrated by the question, “Which are better, charter or public schools?” Charter and public schools operate in vastly different ways across not only states but in the same city that you might as well ask me, “Which is better, freedom or safety?” The answer is, “It depends. Just because you worded it as a simple question does not make the answer any less complex.” Political rhetoric positions public schools against charter schools, but the vast differences within each of these categories guarantees that the debate is meaningless when it comes to picking a school to attend

Many of Philadelphia charter schools are “turn-around schools.” This means that hundreds of students will walk into their exact same school building in September only to find many new staff members operating with a new philosophy, curricula, and discipline policies. Chicago does not do turn-around charter schools. When a new charter school is born, the matriculating students usually enter a different school building in a different area with different peers. The Workshop School of Philadelphia is an open-enrollment project-based learning public school that emerged, in part, to offer innovative instruction to those who could not enter the prestigious magnet public school, Science Leadership Academy. KIPP Chicago Public Charter Schools, part of the national KIPP charter schools with a central headquarters in New York City, offer extended academic school years to parents who sign a non-binding contract on certain expectations to ensure college matriculation. Some charters, like mine, offer performance based salaries based on test scores and classroom observations. Other charters, like my previous school, followed its competing school district pay scale. Comparing charter schools to public schools may be akin to comparing food in Montana to food in Louisiana. Even if one state could be said to have healthier or superior food, both states have their share of five-star restaurants, organic supermarkets, and greasy fast-food rest stops. I’m not quite sure how useful such knowledge is, even if we were able to definitively come to an answer. A school, like a place to eat, earns its importance based on what one is looking for.

If the highly variant policies that charters can employ doesn’t make the charter versus public school debate tricky enough, what happens when you throw in a mix of different student populations. The fact is, charters and public schools can operate so differently that having the tag “charter” or “public” leaves any parent or child no less able to trust or distrust the school in question. The Gateway Lab School of Delaware earned a charter to serve a population comprised mostly of students with special learning needs. In Stuyvesant High School, 97.2% of the students in AP classes earn a score of 3 or higher, which often results in automatic college credit depending on the university. However, only the most elite students earn admission to this public school. With public and charter schools serving sometimes identical and sometimes opposite student populations in a single city, attempting to determine which type of school is superior in general is a useless question.

Perhaps the reason why most research comparing public and charter schools is inconclusive is because of this variance. The length of someone’s hair does not matter when predicting someone’s job success because there are millions of successful people with short hair millions of inmates with short hair. If we really want to find the correct role that charter and public schools should play in public education, the debate should be broken down into smaller and more specific questions: Are charter schools in high-violent, high-poverty neighborhoods more successful than public schools that offer competitive pay to teachers? Are charter schools in high-violent, high-poverty neighborhoods more successful than public schools that operate with longer academic years? The answers to these questions might matter, but the answer to “Are charter or public schools superior?” does not.

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