Could Your Neighborhood School Be On the Chopping Block?

December 10, 2009

As the president struggles with complex and politically sensitive issues like the war in Afghanistan, healthcare and how to accept a Nobel Peace Prize, there are some in the education world who worry that Mr. Obama will not have any political juice left to make the tough decisions needed in K-12 education.

Not to worry, says Jay Mathews over at the Washington Post, for he has an interesting proposal as to what the president can do to placate friends and foes of serious school reform alike: lead a charge to close down chronically low-performing schools.

The idea has its merits. As one study has reported, just 2,000 American high schools -- 13 percent of the nation's total -- produce more than 50 percent of our dropouts. Many of these so-called "dropout factories" have shown little progress in changing their ways.

But as Mr. Mathews correctly points out, closing these schools isn't as simple as one would think. Because it is the states (and local school districts) who control schools, the federal government can't just come in and shut down dropout factories on its own.

Instead, Mr. Mathews suggests that the president's school-closing initiative should focus on charter schools, because those are the schools that are most susceptible to state and federal influence and there is broad consensus -- among teachers unions and even charter school proponents alike -- that bad charter schools should be shuttered wherever they are identified.

As someone who has taught in one of these bad charter schools in St. Louis, I can attest to the value of ending an experiment that has gone wrong, especially when it brings the hopes and dreams of children down in the process.

The problem with the idea is two-fold. First, shutting down charter schools (or even failing public schools) only has value if the schools that children would attend instead are any better. And the sad reality is that families are only opting in to charter schools because the other options, including nearby traditional public schools, aren't very good.

Secondly, while it's true that closing a charter school wouldn't incur the same wrath as would closing an ordinary public school (since most charters don't have unionized teaching staffs that are a part of a powerful collective bargaining base), charter schools still serve students and parents. Many of these parents, despite the fact that their charter schools may not be performing well academically, report (PDF) increased satisfaction with the schools nonetheless.

Which brings us to the big-picture question that Mr. Mathews and President Obama need to consider when it comes to school reform in the first place: What is the end-game? Is the goal giving parents choices? If so, it doesn't seem like closing down any school is in line with that. If no one wants to send their child to a particular school it will get closed by default.

Or are we striving for an American education system where every kid has a first-class academic education? If that's the case, it's unlikely that any feel-good, everybody-wins type idea will get us there: the president will have to knock quite a few heads and need some help from other stakeholders -- unions, school leaders, parents and students themselves -- to get there.

Why not put pressure (through federal incentive grants like the Race to the Top Funds) on states to close down any and all failing schools. A parent's satisfaction seems like a red herring, after all, if her child can barely read and write.


Aaron Tang is the co-director of Our Education, a non-profit organization working to build a national youth movement for quality education. He also teaches 8th grade history in Saint Louis, MO.


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