MCPS's proposed path toward charter schools reflects poor planning and offers few results
The United States education system is in turmoil. Other industrialized countries are outstripping the U.S. in almost every aspect of education. In a desperate move, the U.S. Department of Education has poured $4.35 billion into an unexplored, costly and unnecessary alternative: the charter school.
A charter school is a hybrid between a public and private school. It is funded by the state, but run independently. More and more states around the nation are turning to charters to fix their ailing public school systems. Now Montgomery County is jumping on the bandwagon. Over the summer, a panel made up of multiple MCPS stakeholders approved an application for a Montessori charter school that will begin operation at the end of August 2012.
Charter schools have been given the benefit of the doubt regarding education improvements simply because they offer a different approach to our current system. However, a recent study by The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University challenges this assumption by comparing half of the nation's charter schools to nearby public schools. Factors the CREDO study kept constant included racial demographics and the number of students that qualify for free or reduced lunch. The results indicate that charter schools do not improve the education of their students: in some cases, misled students experience a worse education. According to the study, 83 percent of students in charter schools are doing the same or worse compared to their public school counterparts. The study also shows that charter schools in urban areas significantly outperform those in suburban communities, like Montgomery County. In a video recording of press conference this August, Superintendent Joshua Starr explained, "Charter schools are not a panacea for all that ails public education." Yet MCPS continues to stumble forward in their misguided path to support charter schools.
The point of charter schools is to reform the education system by treating the schools as massive education laboratories and experimenting with new methods for student success. Charters schools are intended to add an element of competition and capitalism to education. Under performing public schools either have to adopt new policies or be shut down.
MCPS has over 140,000 students in 200 schools. This year MCPS is experiencing record-breaking enrollment in schools and the upswing anticipated to keep on growing. The MCPS panel only approved one application for a charter school in the county. If it were to mirror the national average charter school size, the charter would only accommodate about 200 students. A single charter school would not create enough competition with public schools because the waiting list would be so long that local schools would never see a drop in student population or feel pressured to improve. Lori-Christiana Webb, the MCPS charter school liaison, explains, "There is no official plan for the charter schools in MCPS. If the applicant has an innovative educational approach and the capacity to actually create their idea then they become a serious option." In the hope of reforming the entire MCPS system, one charter school will have very little effect.
Even if one chose to overlook the negative research stacked against charter schools, we need to take into consideration not only their ability to function more effectively in other counties but also their cost. MCPS is one of the top tier schools systems in the U.S. and as far as our graduation rates and test scores go, a major overhaul is not what we need. Additionally, the county will pay up to 98 percent of the funds for each student at the charter school, according to the 2003 state law. Phil Kaufman, the chair of the Fiscal Management Committee on the Board of Education explains that the county would end up paying up to $14,000 per student. Charter schools create jobs, but employees would not belong to a union and would not receive tenure thus creating an unstable learning environment. It would be a better idea for MCPS to invest in a much more immediate need in Montgomery County.
Research indicates that charter schools are not the right road for education reform particularly in Montgomery County. The county's attempt to rush towards an inconclusive, unnecessary attempt at reform is foolhardy. For a failing urban school district charter schools may be a lifeline but for a thriving suburban school district like Montgomery County, charter schools actually pose an unnecessary complication.
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