A couple weeks ago one of my school board members, Alva Striplin, told everyone she felt offended by some of some comments people made that evening. It was a school board meeting where the hot topic of the night was a vote on approving two charter schools and she didn’t feel good about the way some parents expressed their dissatisfaction with their options in Leon County.
So she went on the defensive, determined to show everyone how charter schools are worse.
“There was a commentary in the Orlando Sentinel that said charter schools get Fs three times as often in the state of Florida,” she said.
“So I would take great offense—How many charter schools have we closed over the last… I think you said four? And miss Maggie, how many public schools have we closed since you’ve been on the board?”
“One in how many years?”
“In about 18 years.”
“So I would take great offense to the statement that the charter school is superior to the public school,” Striplin said.
Now I don’t claim to make any judgement on the intelligence or the integrity of this particular board member, but if she really doesn’t understand how flawed her argument is, I wonder how many other areas of public school policy she doesn’t understand. She makes decisions for thousands of students and she doesn’t seem to grasp one if the most fundamental differences between traditional public schools and charter schools, which are also public schools, by the way.
Low-Performing Traditional Schools Can Stay Open, Charters Can’t
Here’s why she’s wrong and why what she did was so misleading.
[VIEW THE GALLERY BELOW]
The reason traditional schools almost never close is not because they’re so great. It’s because they’re almost never forced to. Charter schools essentially sign a contract saying that in exchange for some flexibility on curriculum and a few other regulations, they agree to be shut down if they don’t help kids learn. Our traditional public schools are under no such threat.
All Striplin’s comment really does is highlight the disparity between the higher standards of accountability in charter schools and the weaker accountability for the district’s other schools.
Most parents aren’t education policy wonks, so it’s understandable if they don’t know this important difference. But a school board member most certainly should. Or perhaps this board member did know, and she realized most parents wouldn’t. Perhaps she thought it was an easy wool she could pull over our eyes to weaken support of public charter schools. I don’t know, but it’s a reasonable question to ask.
Charter Schools Actually Do Perform Better
The fact is, according to national data, charter schools in Florida have been getting results that are just as good, if not better than traditional schools for the last twelve years. That’s in reading and math for both fourth and eighth graders. And this, despite the fact that charter schools, on average, serve more minority students, and more students from lower-income families than traditional public schools.
Actually, if you just look at minority students in charter schools, they perform better than minority students at traditional schools.
Now let me shed some light on her comment about charter schools getting F’s three times as much as other schools. It’s true. One percent of traditional schools got an F-grade in 2017 whereas three percent of charter schools did. But she didn’t bother to mention that charter schools are also more likely to get A’s. In 2017, 43 percent of charters got an A grade, compared to 27 percent of public schools. Again, considering the fact that charters serve more students that tend to struggle, this fact is all the more remarkable.
Charter schools aren’t a single entity. There are some good ones and some that don’t cut it. But when they close for poor performance that’s actually a good thing. Despite the temporary disruption, it means the kids who go there now have a shot at something better. I wish we could say the same for kids stuck in perpetually failing public schools. But for most of them, the only options they’ve got is to try their luck and hope to get into one of the limited seats at a high-performing traditional school or, to the offense of my school board member, a charter school.
Lane Wright is a father of three in Tallahassee, former press secretary for Governor Rick Scott, and current editor for Education Post, a national education nonprofit focused on creating better conversations around improving our schools.