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Black Community Opinions

Local Voices: School Choice – Public? Or Charter?

By John Horton

President Trump has nominated Betsy DeVos, a multi-billionaire heiress to the Amway fortune, as leader of the U.S. Department of Education. DeVos is a strong proponent of charter and private schools, and she has no substantive experience within the public schools system.

DeVos has said that “parents should be able to use public funds to send their children to whatever private, religious, charter, online or for profit school they choose, including schools run out of the home.

Critics and opponents to include many teachers, unions and most democrat politicians say DeVos’ agenda would come at the expense of traditional education by draining funds from precarious public schools throughout the nation, especially in disadvantaged and at-risk communities.

President Trump, who has campaigned on the promise of passing a $20 billion federal voucher program, has advocated for and supported DeVos’ agenda on the national front.

Furthermore, it should be noted that while the U.S. spends more than $600 billion annually on public K-12 schools, less than 10 percent comes from the federal government. Therefore, it would require (collective) states to come up with another $110 billion, or more. Accordingly, this contribution by the states would substantively withdraw monies from the already strained national education budget.

Recent reports released by the U.S. Department of Education, American Federation of Teachers, and other reliable sources show that charter schools are not faring any better overall than their public schools counterparts. In some cases, the charter schools are struggling to keep up with public schools.

Just recently, the U.S. Department of Education announced it is awarding $157 million to create and expand charter schools throughout the nation. The Obama administration approved this action, despite criticisms by its inspector general in the past that the agency has done a poor job of overseeing federal dollars sent to charter schools.

Interestingly enough, in the past several weeks or so, this topic of “charter schools” has been in the local media…specifically talking about the one in Virginia Beach (Green Run Collegiate).

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Charter schools – generally defined as publicly financed entities with flexible hiring rules and curriculum standards – have increased in numbers and enrollment. Presently, there are nine charter schools operating throughout Virginia: (1) Murray High School – Albemarle County; (2) The Albemarle Community Charter School – Albemarle County; (3) Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts – Richmond; (4) Richmond Career Education and Employment Academy – Richmond; (5) Middlebury Community Charter School – Loudoun County; (6) York River Academy – York County; (7) Green Run Collegiate – Virginia Beach; (8) Hillsboro Charter Academy – Loudon County; and (9) Metropolitan Preparatory Academy – Richmond.

When the socioeconomic data is similar for the students and families being serviced, charter schools perform at about the same standard as public schools. Surprising even to supporters, charter schools have not proven to be the “magic formula” or “silver bullet” that they are sometimes hyped to be. In most cases, charter schools have done no better in educating their children, especially those most at risk and/or disadvantaged along socioeconomic lines.

I have never been a big proponent of charter schools. In my opinion, they put a bandage over the real problems and provide window dressing for what truly ails our public education system. I have always disagreed with the notion that charter schools could turn out better students than the public schools already in existence. On paper and in theory it looks good, however, in practice and reality, the “public education issue” is more complex and vexing.

Based on my experience, there are five major areas that need special attention and preferential treatment before anything meaningful can occur: (1) effective parenting skills; (2) pre- and post-natal services; (3) preschool accessibility; (4) elementary school empowerment; and (5) parental involvement and support.

It is as if no one truly wants to talk about the “root causes” and “real reasons” that frustrate our efforts in resolving the deficiencies and inadequacies that challenge and debilitate our public schools. There’s an old African saying, “He who conceals his illness cannot expect to be cured.”

For us to be cured, I believe that solutions to our public schools dilemma begin with attendance, behavior, academic performance, teacher competence, parental involvement, administrative oversight, community support, and adequate financing. There are no quick fixes or silver bullets. Only honest dialogue, collaborative effort, hard work and courageous leadership can resolve the public schools dilemma that we have created for ourselves.

Unless all of these objectives and goals can be accomplished satisfactorily, charter schools will not prove to be an education panacea. And, they should not be substituted for our present public schools, for nothing will have changed substantially for our (at-risk and disadvantaged) students in their quest for education excellence.

John Horton is a Norfolk resident an a frequent contributor to this newspaper.

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