Jeff Wagenheim: Charter schools are needed engines of innovation
NORTHAMPTON — As discourse on public education goes, the diatribe about charter schools by Deborah Keisch Polin and Tim Scott (“The high price of charters,” May 17) gets a failing grade for its misleading insinuations and outright falsehoods.
Let’s start with the most volatile issue facing our schools: money. The authors say the Northampton school district loses thousands of dollars a year for each city child who attends a charter, but neglect to mention that the district is reimbursed every last penny the first year, then 25 percent of tuition increases in each of the next five years. So in the case of my daughter, who started at Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School when she was a kindergartner, Northampton will still be receiving funding on her behalf when she’s in fifth grade, even though she will not have spent a day in the city’s schools.
Keisch Polin and Scott write disdainfully of the state funding that charters receive as if it were money squandered, when in fact it’s used for that frivolous purpose known as educating children. Educating them creatively and as individuals.
And what children are we talking about? The authors claim that charters are “selective” in the kids they take. But Hilltown, like other charters, uses a lottery. It’s open to all. Any family can put its children’s names in the hat, and classroom slots are filled according to the luck of the draw — not in deference to some sinister measure of socioeconomic status or learning ability.
Among the column’s other untruths:
• That “charters are privately managed and operated.” Not in the Pioneer Valley, or anywhere else in Massachusetts, they aren’t. Our charter schools are independent but not private.
• That charters “have little to no accountability to the communities in which they reside.” The teachers and administrators at Hilltown and other area charters are public employees with strict accountability guidelines, which are available for public perusal. Polin and Scott confuse “accountability” with “control.” Charters are not controlled by the districts but are held to higher standards of accountability by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
• That charters tend to have “significant attrition rates based on student academic and behavioral performance.” Hilltown has 2 percent attrition, less than a third of that in the Northampton schools. And even that low figure is deceptive, as most who depart our small kindergarten through Grade 8 community are middle school-age kids who simply feel ready for a larger school environment.
The cynical implication in the piece is that charter schools weed out children with special educational needs, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Hilltown provides special education services at a rate comparable to those of local districts. In our family’s three years at the school, we’ve seen children of all abilities treated with nothing but respect, patience, compassion, admiration and inspiration. It’s a truly loving community.
I wish I could view the column as the work of a naïve graduate student who’s ingested scholarly literature but never spent a day at a charter school. But when I see that the Ph.D. candidate’s co-author is an incoming member of the state teachers’ union executive board, the underlying agenda becomes clear.
They trot out the same tired arguments that have stunted the conversation for 20 years — that’s two decades in which charters like Hilltown have transformed the learning paradigm for those children fortunate enough to win a spot. Rather than trying to tear down these innovative public schools that excel, we should be putting our energy toward making that rich experience available to all children.
Jeff Wagenheim of Northampton is a parent of two children at the Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School in Haydenville.