Q&A for the undecided

What do you have against charter schools?

This campaign is not a judgment on charter schools in general. Our argument is that this proposal is the wrong choice for this place and at this time. Santa Cruz County already hosts eleven public charter schools, four of them at the elementary level, as well as multiple alternative education programs. Within the Santa Cruz City Elementary Schools district, Monarch Community School operates a program much like the one being proposed. At a time when per-student funding has already been cut dramatically, the budgetary and space demands of a opening a new charter school to serve a hundred students would force major sacrifices upon thousands of other children in the district’s neighborhood schools.

There’s room for differences of opinion about how the charter school movement has transformed American education. You don’t have to oppose all charter schools to sign our petition. However, while you’re here, you may be interested to learn that recent studies have suggested that many charter schools (especially those not located in urban areas) are significantly less diverse than neighborhood schools; that their overall educational outcomes may be no better than “traditional” schools; and that they have a very mixed track record of educating students with special educational and physical needs. Unlike a charter that can “counsel out” students who do not seem to fit in, neighborhood public schools fulfill their mandate to educate everyone, including those children who are stranded when charter schools fail.

What do you have against Montessori?

Again: nothing. Maria Montessori was an important figure in the history of education, one who worked passionately to transform the lives of the poorest children. There have been many other theorists and practitioners, from Bronson Alcott,  John Dewey, and Rudolf Steiner to Alexander Sutherland Neill, Ivan Illich and Mary Leue–to name just a few–who have done similar work. One can imagining starting new charter schools reflecting each one of these philosophies. The argument from the Maria Montessori Charter School’s founders that only ‘pure’ Montessori practice can keep the love and light of learning alive in a children’s eyes may reflect their convictions—although as parents of children in Santa Cruz public neighborhood schools, it does not reflect our experience. The question is whether this ideological purity is something taxpayer money should go to support here and now.

Isn’t it good for everyone to have more choice when it comes to schools for their children?

“Choice” is a favorite word of the pro-charter movement. In a consumer society, we absorb the message that more choices are always better for the individual. That may be true of choosing a toothpaste (or maybe not). But when it comes to commonly held assets—schools, roads, health care, emergency services—we pool our resources so that we can afford to do big things. A school of twenty students can’t afford to build a new grass playing field; a district of three thousand can.

It’s a fact that the greater your means, the more choices you have. There are dozens of private schools of all kinds in Santa Cruz: assuming you have enough money and meet other requirements, you can choose to send your child to any of them. That does not mean that the common funds we have all pooled together for the greater good—our taxes—should go to subsidize each individual’s choices. In some quarters, unfortunately, the rhetoric of school “choice” has become another way of eroding the great democratic ideal that everyone in society deserves a good education. It’s part of the ongoing privatization of the public trust.

There is no “one size fits all” education, which is why the public education system in our area has as many distinctive branches and alternative programs as it has. But it’s obvious that after a certain point, if too many people opt out of the system, it will no longer function. If a school serving 500 neighborhood children loses 10 to one charter school, 20 to another, and 20 to yet another, the 450 children who remain will still need their school librarian. Yet they’ll have lost $50,000 in taxpayer funds: there goes the librarian’s salary! You have to ask: what’s the tipping point, beyond which our limited means are simply being stretched too far?

Doesn’t the state discriminate against charter schools?

No. Since 2006, when a new law changed the way funds are allocated to charter schools, they receive as much per-student funding from the state as neighborhood public schools, without having to cover some of the same costs. An even bigger issue is space. Districts are required to find comparable space for charter schools, even if their own campuses are already crowded. If approved, the proposed Montessori charter would have the legal right to classrooms on a SCCS campus, like DeLaveaga, Bayview, or Gault—and could force one of those schools to close. Think that can’t happen? An award-winning neighborhood elementary school in Orange County was just ordered to shut down to make room for a five-month-old charter school, because the district was legally obligated to do so. Local governance is also an issue. A charter petition that is rejected by the city school district may be chartered by the County Board of Education (as PCS was), or by the state (like the controversial Bullis Charter in Los Altos); either body can require the same district that rejected the petition to provide the charter with space. The upshot is that an approved charter can legally take resources from our neighborhood schools, even though many “founding families” do not even live in the city school district.

7 Responses to Q&A for the undecided

  1. Anthony Villarreal says:

    Excellent work, well reasoned argument… Also begin sharing the idea of a community divided by elitists who keep forming their own special schools… Why are White liberals with Unity stickers on their car sending kids to Gateway at $12k a year? How can we create a community conversation about our shared humanity, a multiracial county with criminal levels of exploitation of Brown labor, while liberals get to feel good about recycling and driving a hybrid… stop the nonsense. The new Jim Crow comes in the form of Charter schools with holistic assessment and global thinking in the mission statement…

    • Joshua Kent says:

      However our current system is outdated. Made to produce a working class in the industrial age. Our education system is not preparing our kids to get jobs in the 21st century.
      Anthony when was the last time you tried to hire a college student? They can barely make their own decisions.

      • Joshua, your history may be true in a very general way, but it is important to note that some of the hallmarks of Montessori’s reforms (and Alcott’s, and Dewey’s, and those of many other educational theorists), like collaborative and student-driven work, have made their way into the “traditional” public schools. True, not mixed-grade classes. Thank you for providing the link to our fine local Montessori school–it would be nice to see some of the energy that the MMCS supporters are putting into this destructive project (for it will destroy some programs near and dear to our children) go into supporting scholarships at SCMS to make an education there more accessible to those who want it.

      • To the extent that your generalization about college students today is justified (and I’m not sure it’s fair to them), you can lay the blame on parenting styles as much as schooling. Do parents let their 6-year-olds roam around all afternoon and evening on their bikes, like I used to do? Playdates and organized sports filter children’s afterschool activities top-down through parents, rather than bottom-up through the children of a neighborhood, as they used to be. This is a complex social change with mixed results: today’s “helicopter parents” may be closer to their children than those of decades past, but the flip side to this unwavering emotional and financial support is that kids are less familiar with having to salvage a failure themselves. I don’t think this is a Montessori vs. public-school difference, it’s a parenting-styles difference.

  2. Joshua Kent says:

    http://www.scms.org/montessori.html

    Here is the web cite for more info on Montessori.

  3. KW says:

    All public schools deserve our support, including public charter schools. If a large school with all the advantages that come with size is loosing students, we have to look at what we can do to help that school be more attractive to families, not push down others.

    • Thanks for your comment, KW, but labeling a school “public” doesn’t guarantee that that school is serving the public good. Have you seen the studies on our Links page indicating that charter schools are re-segregating American public schools, the foundation of our democracy? With limited resources, we in Santa Cruz have to choose whether to support existing programs that will–without a doubt–be lost to pay for the beautiful fantasies of a few. This isn’t “pushing down others,” or bad playground etiquette. It’s a disagreement over where public resources should go.

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