Charter school mythology maintains that charter schools are excellent. The astroturf organizations that venture capitalists fund in order to simulate popular support for charter schools have names like "Families for Excellent Schools" and "Great Schools For All." And, if you're foolish enough to get into an argument with one of these folks on Twitter, it won't be long before they compare themselves to Freedom Riders and you to an evil segregationist who opposes good schools for children of color.
In light of this, it's worth asking if charter schools are, in fact, excellent schools. There is certainly abundant evidence that they do not do as good a job of educating all comers as regular urban schools, but I'd like to take the comparison to another level. Charter backers often suggest that they only want to give people with limited means the same freedom of choice that wealthy people have. After all, if you've got enough money, you can move to any community you want and send your kids to the public schools there.
By this logic, charter schools should be quite similar to the kind of suburban schools that affluent families choose for their children.
So let's take a look and see if that's true!
I decided to look at Lexington High School, a public high school in an affluent community, and MATCH Charter High School, one of the so-called "Excellent Schools" that charter advocates want to open more of.
As one might expect, Lexington High School students perform very well on standardized tests. So do MATCH students, though they don't perform as well as LHS students.
But there's more to a school than test scores.
At least in Lexington there is.
Lexington High School offers Cheerleading, Field Hockey, Football, Swimming, Golf, Soccer, Volleyball, Basketball, Hockey, Wrestling, Baseball, Softball, Lacrosse, Tennis, and Ultimate Frisbee.
MATCH offers Basketball, Track, and Soccer.
Now admittedly, MATCH has a much smaller student body and couldn't support all those teams. But even the teams they have seem a bit half-hearted. MATCH girls' soccer plays 11 matches; Lexington High School girls' varsity soccer plays 20 matches.
Lexington High School offers an extensive art program: they have a visual art department and a performing arts department that includes dance, drama, and music.
MATCH has no visual art teacher or music teacher. It employs one drama teacher who is also the athletic director. I am not making this up.
Lexington High School's library employs two librarians and three assistants.
MATCH does not appear to have a librarian or a library.
Lexington High School offers courses in ASL, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish.
MATCH offers courses in Spanish.
Lexington High School's principal has 18 years of experience as a teacher.
MATCH's principal graduated from college in 2008.
Now, comparing a large suburban school to a small urban one may not be fair. But this is the comparison charter advocates invite. This, they say, pointing at schools like MATCH (which I chose for this example only because they do a better job of retaining their students than most Boston charter high schools, though they still lag behind BPS), is the very best we can do for urban students.
This barebones test-prep factory is the best we can do?
No: students in Boston deserve better. Students everywhere in Massachusetts deserve better.
And, in fact, they have better.
Not only suburban high schools, but also Snowden, a small Boston Public High School where students can play soccer, football, hockey, basketball, wrestling, volleyball and softball. Where students can take courses in performing and visual arts. Where students can study Chinese, French, Japanese, and Spanish. Where there is a librarian.
Charter advocates would have you focus only on test scores, but these are not the only thing that makes a school great. The arts, world languages, athletics, libraries: these are not frills. They are, in fact, what the affluent parents of Lexington demand for their children. They are part of a complete education. And they are an area in which charter schools fall woefully short.
This is not an accident. Charter schools have chosen to shortchange their students in these areas. They have had twenty years in Massachusetts to establish themselves, and this is what they've come up with.
Our students deserve better and already have better. Expanding the number of charter schools will only weaken the schools working to educate the whole student rather than simply training students to take tests.