Lane Wright: If America’s Public Schools Are a Family, Charter Schools Are the Unwanted Adopted Child

This essay originally appeared in the Sunshine State News.

Imagine a family with 10 kids: nine biological and one adopted.

After a couple of years, the parents and siblings start to regret their choice to adopt him. He works hard, gets good grades, but there’s a problem: He’s growing! Not like a kid who ate magic beans or anything, but he’s eating more of the family’s food, using up valuable space in the family van, and asking for access to the family computer (which they’ve denied).

The parents decide to take a little cut from his allowance and require that he shop for his own clothes and pay for his own transportation. As a trade-off, they allow him to stay out later. After all, he’s got to work a night job to bring in some of his own money. The boy accepts the requirements and continues to impress onlookers with his success in school and his frugality.

Of course, part of his motivation is the threat of being kicked out of the family if his grades slip or if he can’t sustain himself financially.

Despite his success, the family starts complaining about his allowance, arguing that it could be divided up among the original nine. “He’s draining our allowance funds!” they cry. “Why are mom and dad prioritizing him over the rest of us?” they demand. “He’s getting rich off our money!”

In the real world, only 10 percent of Florida students attend charter schools. They’re the one adopted sibling in a public school family of 10. The hostile school board members and superintendents aligned with the Florida Education Association’s anti-charter campaign are the abusive parents. In newspapers and blogs, political campaigns, and school board meetings, they paint charter schools across the state as a giant money-eating monster that’s staring down every child attending traditional schools.

That portrayal is fiction.

Like the allowance disparity in that fictional family, charter schools get less money to educate kids and are largely on their own to find a building for the school. That’s why sometimes you’ll see charter schools operating in unusual places, like an empty section of the largely abandoned Centre of Tallahassee mall where my son goes to school.

A 2017 report by Florida Taxwatch found that charter schools get about $3,000 less per student. And still, the well-organized, well-funded anti-charter voices complain that charter schools are bleeding them dry, being prioritized over traditional schools, and only out to get rich at the expense of the kids who go to their schools.

When I reminded someone on Twitter that most charter schools are managed by nonprofit organizations, she told me that they just take their extra money to “build their empire.”

But if charter schools are building an empire that gets amazing results for kids, then heck yeah, let’s help them build it bigger!

If charter schools don’t get good grades, or if they become financially unstable with that smaller allowance, they get shut down, or “kicked out of the family.”

The haters foolishly cite the occasional charter school closure as evidence that charter schools are a drag on public funds, but they miss the fact that if traditional schools were held to the same financial and academic standards, we’d see many of them shutting down as well.

That bit about using the family van and computer are based in reality, too!

In Leon County, all families with kids in public schools get a free license for Microsoft Office 360 — that is, unless you’re a charter school family like mine. And just this year they denied our charter school access to the computer system the county uses to hire teachers.

Our school has also been told that soon, they won’t be allowed to park their buses or refuel at the district’s bus lot.

Despite being outnumbered in the public school family, underfunded, and squeezed out of district perks, charter school students in Florida, especially minorities, outperform their traditional school counterparts.

Charter schools are public schools, by law. They are tuition-free and open to the public. The schools are in such high demand that enrollment decisions have to be made by lottery, and those who don’t make it are added to waiting lists.

Families want these schools because, for one reason or another, the traditional school they’re zoned for doesn’t meet their needs. Instead of trying to crush the little guy, school board and district leaders should stop perpetuating a sibling rivalry and stop picking a side. They should be fair and do everything possible to help all kids succeed, because in the end, we’re all part of the same family of public schools.

Lane Wright is an editor at Education Post focused on telling stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better, and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

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