Guest Column: Are charter schools worth the cost?

By Rachel Leon

I attended the school board candidate forum Sunday, March 6, because I now realize how critical it is that we have school board representatives who understand the needs of our community and will listen to the voices of their constituents. It seemed several candidates were surprised to find that so many people cared about the issue of charter schools. Tom McNamee’s guest column, “Charters 101,” was followed by this (last) week’s Andrew Broy’s “Charters 402.” It seems safe to say the issue is hitting a nerve with both those for and against charter schools.

I recently read Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, a book I highly recommend to anyone looking to educate themselves about the charter school issue. In it, Ravitch states that some of the very best schools in our nation are charters, but then so are some of our very worst. The vast majority of charters, which is true with most public schools as well, lie somewhere in between.

We lose focus on the real issue when we try to categorize charter schools as “good” or “bad.” The question we need to focus on is what happens to our public school system if we bring more charter schools to Rockford? The answer we saw March 1—our neighborhood schools close.

It has been clearly stated at board meetings that there are empty seats in our public school classrooms because of kids leaving and going to charter schools. This school year, $3.7 million of the budget went to fund (two) charter schools. This figure will raise to $6.9 million in the 2011-2012 school year with the addition of a third charter. (Both of these numbers were obtained from the Rockford Public Schools website.) In Dr. Sheffield’s 2012 Budget Development Powerpoint presentation from Jan. 25, it is stated that closing Dennis, Stiles, New Milford and Jackson would save the District $6.7 million. The proposal was to close these four schools (disrupting the lives of the children attending them), which cost less to fund than three charters. It seems clear the school closings would not have been necessary without the existence of these charters. My condolences to the students, parents and teachers at Summerdale, Stiles, New Milford, Jackson and Kennedy for the upheaval you are facing with your closed schools.

There are two strong charter advocacy groups in Rockford working to develop more of these privately-run schools–and at what cost? To understand that you can talk to a teacher at Summerdale, a parent at New Milford, or a student at Stiles. I am not placing all the blame for these schools’ closures on our charter schools, but they were a significant contributing factor that has not been discussed.

In Ravitch’s book, she states that “public education is a vital institution in our democratic society, and its governance must be democratic, open to public discussion and public participation.” There is no public discussion or participation in charter schools, no democracy. So many people were upset with the way the administration and board handled the school closings because it wasn’t a democratic process. A grassroots effort is emerging in Rockford to try to place the public back in our public schools system. I believe this effort is what can restore our community after the closures. After seeing what happens when important decisions are made without public input, the charter school model worries me even more. Charter schools are not necessarily run by community members. We saw what happened when someone from the outside (Mr. Shannon Bingham from Western Demographics) came into the district and tried to tell us what was best. Our community needs to have a voice in what happens with our schools.

The question we need to ask ourselves–and that our school board candidates need to understand–about charter schools is not about their value, but what will ultimately happen to our community.

Rachel Leon is a mother of three children in the Rockford School District.

From the March 16-22, 2011, issue

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