A Case for Charter Schools

Call me Booster Mom. My official title remains to be seen – President, Vice President, Chief Bottle Washer and Cookie Dough Pusher. It all boils down to the same thing: For the next school year, a sizeable chunk of Day-Timer real estate will be invested at my children’s charter school.  Money is tight – state funding was recently cut several hundred dollars per child. So parental support and involvement is needed as never before, and Craig and I are determined to do our part.

From time to time, people ask us why we chose charter schools for our kids. We have several good Catholic schools nearby, and the two public school systems near us have solid reputations. We also know several families who have chosen to home-school their children. However, we live about a mile from the second-highest-ranking charter school in the state of Michigan, which has a dual focus on academics and character formation in the “global virtues.” To us, the National Heritage Academies were a natural choice.

In the four years we’ve been a part of this school, we’ve been increasingly impressed. The families who attend want to be there, minimizing behavior problems and maximizing parental involvement. The waiting lists are long. (My son wound up 90th on the kindergarten waiting list, and got the last open spot in his class by winning the “academic lottery” on the first day of school. Because her big brother was already enrolled in the school, Sarah easily won an open slot two years later.)

There are drawbacks. There is no bussing, so each year there is a scramble for carpooling. Some kids are less-than-thrilled with the dress code restrictions (my daughter routinely expresses her individuality with brightly colored toenails under her sensible shoes.) Even younger kids have considerable “homework time” every night.  And because we don’t receive the same government funding as public school kids, fundraisers are a fact of life. But parents persevere, too, because it’s in our children’s best interest.

What Are Charter Schools?

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are typically governed by a group or organization under a contract (charter) with the state. In return for funding and autonomy, the charter school must meet accountability standards to retain its charter. According to MAPSA, 223 of the 4136 elementary schools in Michigan are charter schools. The National Center for Educational Statistics reports almost 1.2 million students were enrolled nationally in 4,132 charter schools (2006–07). And the demand is growing. The US Charter Schools website states: “In the past four years, 1,600 new public charter schools opened and 500,000 additional public school students chose to enroll in public charter schools.”

Not all charter schools perform equally well, and charter schools do have detractors in both the public and private school sectors, as schools must compete for students and funding. In an article in its recent Catholic school education issue, “U.S. Catholic” featured an article that stated “Charter schools are ‘one of the biggest threats to Catholic schools in the inner city, hands down’” (pg. 17).

Yes, the existence — and increasing popularity — of charter schools does have very real implications for other institutions of learning. However, charter schools clearly offer an attractive alternative to traditional public schools, especially for poor and minority families who cannot afford parochial school tuition (NCEA puts the median annual cost of parochial school tuition at a little over $3,100 per student, less financial aid). Sixty percent of public charter school students are minorities; 52 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. (By comparison, the NCEA website indicates that minority students represent only 29.3% of parochial school enrollment.)

Charter schools are not for everyone. Review your options and weigh the needs of your own children, then make a prudent decision. Some parents choose to home-school, while others feel a parish school is truly the best choice for them. Still others monitor their child’s progress in the local public school, and find their children’s needs are being met there. All these are viable options, so long as we do not abdicate our responsibility as our children’s first and most important teacher, especially in the areas of faith formation and moral development.

I didn’t become Catholic until I was 30, so I don’t have a built-in bias toward parochial education. Craig was also educated in public schools. So when it came time to choose a school for our kids, Craig and I considered our options, then we set our sights on the charter school down the street, which advertised a “private school education at a public school price.” The cost of tuition was just one of many factors we considered — we were impressed with its academic achievements and appreciated the close proximity to our home. We liked that parents frequently volunteer in the classroom. After four years, we believe we’ve made the right choice for our family.

Are Catholic Schools Always Best?

In reality, there is no perfect choice, as each has its strengths and weaknesses. Catholic school parents can sometimes fall into the trap of “catechesis by checkbook,” assuming that sending their children to parochial school absolves them of any additional responsibility to instruct their own children or engage them in the learning process. In her article published at Catholic Culture entitled “The Parochial School,” author Mary Reed Newland observes, “Teaching nuns and Brothers are not the equivalent of parents, and no parochial school can substitute for a home or the example and teaching of parents. Together, the home and the parochial school can work into a whole piece the two phases of life which do the most to make the man.” This is as true today as it was in 1961, when the piece was written.

Catholic school and even homeschooling parents also need to guard against a kind of creeping elitism that effectively prevents their children from interacting in meaningful ways with families who don’t look and think exactly as they do. We experienced this “ghetto mentality” a few years ago when we enrolled our (then) foster son in a nearby Catholic Montessori preschool. Within a few weeks a small group of “concerned parents” confronted the teacher about the negative influence Christopher had on their children. Recently separated from his birth parents and older brother, and already demonstrating signs of the learning disabilities with which he continues to struggle, Christopher was undeniably rambunctious. He used words like “dead” and “kill,” and didn’t have nice table manners (I had only recently managed to get him to stop hiding food in his closet and smearing unmentionable substances on the wall).

As Christopher’s mother, I found myself shut out of this discussion. Only one other parent — herself a foster mother — had a kind word of encouragement for us, and only one parent had the courage to invite us on a play date and talk with us directly about her concerns. Others banded together to build a solid case, then badgered the teacher until — faced with the real possibility of losing the other students — she called a conference and suggested mildly that we needed to work on our parenting skills, and urged us to reconsider Christopher’s readiness to be in a formal program.

Feeling humiliated and betrayed by these “good Catholic families,” we withdrew our son, and enrolled him in a local preschool co-op a month later. Christopher thrived in this classroom — a more play-based environment. The teacher was surprised when I told her our son had been removed from the previous program. “But your son is such a sweet boy. Active, but then all children are at that age, aren’t they?” I could have kissed her, and I redoubled my efforts to help her in any way I could. I would teach my son about his faith — as I always have. But his early school experiences would be positive ones… and he would always associate “Catholic education” with acceptance and love, rather than rejection and criticism.  I would make sure of it.

Today Christopher continues to struggle at times; both kids have special processing challenges that make it difficult for them to focus in the classroom. But at National Heritage Charter schools, teachers work with parents to help students reach their full potential — both academically and morally.

So this year when the leadership team of the South Arbor Booster Club introduced its “Boosters Plus” fund drive, I was the first to whip out my checkbook. I believe in the goals and values this school has set for itself, and I want to be a part of that vision. Later this week, I’ll also write a check to our church to pay for their religious education instruction. The checks are roughly the same amount (actually, the religious education costs quite a bit more when you factor in the at-home resources). But then, the return is… priceless.

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  • Claire

    Heidi, thank you for raising the issue of the “ghetto mentality”. This is very real. I’m so sorry for the way you and your family were treated by “good Catholics”.

  • arrowe

    One of my daughters, who had hearing and learning disabilty and whom we transferred to a Catholic school here in the Philippines when she was 12 years old, suffered so much from the maltreatment, ridicule, insults and “ghetto mentality” from her Catholic classmates. When we were able to gather strong proof of what she was undergoing, the teachers and the principal were very supportive and even asked her classmates to apologize to her. This they did but she was shunned and ostracized. Several times she went to me crying, telling me that she had no friend and that she would like to go to back to her Adventist school.(My wife converted to Catholicism when we got married, but we enrolled this daughter to the Adventist School near our house. She felt loved and accepted there.) I told her just to continue praying for friends. After two years in the school, she still complained that she did not have friends among her classmates but we were happy to know from her that she found friends from the classmates of her kid sisters. She also endeared herself to some senior students who were members of a religious organization she joined. We just keep on praying that her classmates will realize that they are hurting Christ in their midst.

  • http://www.christianword.com Heidi Saxton

    Arrowe: I’m sorry this happened to your daughter. Yours is a good example of how important it is for parents to be their children’s strongest advocate. We can’t always shield them from hardship … but we can and MUST give them the tools they need to stand on their own.

    God bless you as you continue to parent this precious girl!

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  • Mary Kochan

    I would like to put in a plug for another kind of charter school. These are the virtual academies. They are “public charter schools” but the schooling is done at home. They use the K12 curriculum, which is excellent and all materials are provided free to the parent — finally homeschoolers can get something back for all the taxes they pay for “education”! They are available in nearly 20 states. You can learn about these virtual academies at http://www.k12.com.

  • elkabrikir

    Mary, my 10th grader is using Pametto Ecademy this year. It’s wonderful! Thanks for mentioning the virtual public schools. Thery’re FREE!!!! And she gets to live our values. I get to enjoy her company too!

    Back to the article. It is important to keep lines of communication open among many types of groups whether within or without the Church. I’ve got children in 5 different schools, including public, charter, public university, and homeschool. I assess the individual child’s needs when placing them in a particular schooling option. The overall goal of raising a Holy Famiy remains paramount.

    I try to balance a positive relationship within every sphere. There is goodness in many places and we need to embrace it where we find it. Nobody should become biased. God calls us to follow the same Truth along different pathways.

    I’m thankful for the varied options my husband and I have in exercising our right and duty to educate our children. Thanks for discussing the Charter Schools option.

  • Heidi

    Heidi, Great presentation of your choice given your options. I think the best, broadest thing for parents new to school, or trying to improve their family’s school experience is smmarized in your article by Mary Reed Newland’s observation: “Teaching nuns and Brothers are not the equivalent of parents, and no parochial school can substitute for a home or the example and teaching of parents.” The same goes for our children’s academics in public, charter or private schools AND for the teaching of the Catholic faith not only at a parochial school but at CCD, too. Too many parents develop an out-sourcing mentality of parenting, which is completely contrary to the vows we take at their baptism to be their first and best teachers [in the faith]. In all ways and areas, God has given us the priviledge of raising our specific children, and it should be our joyful responsiblity to stay involved no matter where they learn their 3 R’s.

    Thanks for reminding us to pursue good parenting in all areas, Heidi.

    Heidi Bratton

  • Claire

    Thank you so much for mentioning the virtual academies. That sounds like a great option to consider.

  • Kathryn

    Uh, no, neither charter schools–the kind we normally think of–nor virtual charter schools–are “free”. Someone, somewhere, is having to pay the bill to fund the service. Usually this is the taxpayer. And even people who “don’t pay taxes” are paying for them when they go shopping or pay their energy bill or grocery bill or whaterver, because the taxes that companies pay in order that we get all these gov’t “free” things (education, garbage pickup, highway construction just to name a few) are simply passed along to the consumer.

    We really must disabuse ourselves of the notion that we get anything for “free” (with the possible exeption of God’s love) whether that item is from the gov’t or a charity or whatever. Hidden costs are all over the place, and we do ourselves a diservice when we kid ourselves are getting a “freebie”.

  • Mary Kochan

    You are right Kathryn; they aren’t free. But I think it is good for homeschooling parents to get the benefit of the tax money they pay for education instead of having to pay twice — once in taxes and then again to buy the programs.

  • http://www.livecatholic.net/ mklatt

    This is a topic that our family is living right now, and I wrote about in my blog http://www.livecatholic.net/ Our Catholic school closed in June, and while my older son was in the last graduation class for the school, and is now going to Catholic high school, our 1st grader has started in the charter school that has taken up residence in our old school. It is quite a transition.

    I am interested in the K-12 program Mary Kochen suggested, but our county school board does not pay for it, and quite frankly I don’t want to homeschool. Money is tight now, especially since we now have to pay for Catholic high school. Even with financial aid it is tough. The public schools are at best OK, at worst cesspools. We simply cannot afford two tuitions in two different schools. So we are trying the charter school, which already is an “A” set of schools and will keep our eyes open. I will be writing about our charter school experiences in my blog as they happen and hopefully all will be ok.

  • Kathryn

    Mary:

    I am very sympathetic to that viewpoint, trust me. We are a one-income family. (Most of us homeschoolers are, aren’t we?) It is very irritating to have to pay twice–once into a system that is most definately NOT of benefit of all the kids who attend it (trust me, I know. I’ve been tutoring one all summer long…) and then to my own boys.

  • Claire

    Kathryn, yes, we pay for the charter schools and virtual charter schools with our tax dollars, but we also pay for regular public schools with our tax dollars. Having the option of virtual charter schools makes homeschooling much more affordable, as we pay these taxes whether or not we take advantage of the services they fund. I myself am thrilled to learn of this option. I live in an excellent school district, but there are still concerns: the fact that my son will spend 7 hours of his day never hearing the word “God”, the threat of sex ed, etc. So it’s great to know that there is an affordable alternative should I encounter problems.

  • Kathryn

    As someone who may yet send at least one of her kids to (gasp!!) public high school, I don’t want to come across as a hypocrit and seem like I am condemning virtual charter schools and the people who make the decision to send their kids to one. It is an understandable decision, but it may be a decision that carries unforeseen negative consequences.

    HSLDA offers some good points in opposition to virtual charter schools and their thoughts on the issue are worth considering.

    I believe Mike Ferris is listed on the http://www.schoolandstate.org website (actually, its an interesting list of who is on it, espeicially the Catholic names…http://www.schoolandstate.org/proclamation.htm )so naturally, he would be opposed to virtual charter schools.

    Here is HSDLA analysis. It is worth consideration.

    http://www.hslda.org/docs/nche/issues/c/charterschools.asp

  • Mary Kochan

    I understand HSLDA’s position. I agree with their foundational argument — they want the government out of education. Period. So do I.

    I disagree with their conclusions and some of the “facts” they use to support those conclusions.

    Take this bit from their website: “Some 30 states already prohibit public schools and public school-funded programs from using sectarian materials. Because home-based charter schools are tax-funded, parents cannot use Christian or other religious curriculum, nor will the home-based charter school give their children credit for religious courses/materials.”

    This is really a bit of sleight-of-hand argument. That parent is not prohibited from anything. While the parent must teach and the child must test on the required material, which is not “sectarian”, the parent may supplement this material with anything the parent chooses to use. GVA allows 12 hours of attendance credit per week in supplemental hours and the parent has the freedom to use some of these hours for religious education, or art, music, woodworking, cooking or whatever else the parent decides — the parent does not have to report the exact content of that instruction, nor get approval for it, at least in my state.

    Even if that were to change, my (on paper) situation would be no different from that of any public school parent whose religious instruction is not counted in school attendance. So what? But my practical day-to-day situation and that of the children is very different. The virtual academies respect the autonomy of the family much more.

    I think that HSLDA has made a grave tactical error in not allowing the parents of the virtual academy students to join them or to remain members of HSLDA. I think they should be lobbying for the greater freedom of the virtual academies and acknowledging those parents as homeschoolers. The virtual academy parents would then be joined with homeschoolers in resisting government control of education, asserting parents rights, and fighting for economic justice for homeschoolers.

  • Claire

    That’s a really good point, Mary. There is strength in numbers; the more allies, the better.

  • Kathryn

    Mary:

    The HSLDA will take donations from pretty much anybody—homeschooler or not. And there really is no reason for homeschoolers who use taxpayer funded and approved virtual charter schools to join because those children are already in a state-approved, tax payer funded school. Some districts have even started the concept on their own in order to lure the children and the parents back into the regular system—or at minimum, get them into use state approved materials. (The K12 program is not a taxpayer funded program within MI, so I could join HSLDA and still use K12…but this may not be true for a homeschooler in Colorado, where K12 has tax payer funded partners. You would have to check with HSLDA.)

    You are correct that certain HSLDA arguments seem a bit of a stretch. There is no reason a parent using a tax payer funded program could not add on whatever religious (or vocational or music or art, etc) curriculum they wish—and then simply not report it. You do, and I suspect most do. But what if I wanted to use a specifically Catholic spelling program (say My Catholic Speller), I couldn’t, or at least I could not be and be honest about it. (There is a letter to the editor detailing a similar situation to this http://www.hslda.org/courtreport/V18N2/V18N207.asp) Or what if I totally disagreed with the state approved, Darwin evolution based science book but didn’t have the time to both teach it for the test and then unteach it?

    Every title–Catholic, Protestant, secular, etc–is written with a certain world view and attitude. One title I was most interested in using and almost purchased this summer was a very nice looking geography series. But one of the assignments was to write to the gov’t authorities and demand they spend tax payer dollars fixing up some polluted something-or-other. I didn’t think my kids needed to do that and wondered what else was in the workbook that I might have problems with. I decided to purchased a different geography series.

    In a state sponsored program, the parent may not have the option to deep-six silly or otherwise objectionable assignments.

    And, as a recipient of tax payer funded education services, I suspect many users of those types of charter school might be somewhat reluctant to lobby against tax payer funded education. That is one of the things I think about when I consider sending my eldest son to public high school. What kind of materials will he be exposed to there? What kind of message is this sending if I use this service? Will I be an effective spokesman for ending state involvement in our schools?

    Again, I am not condemning the use of tax payer funded schools (of any kind)—they are there and education is compulsory under the law. Not every parent has the time, energy, confidence, or money to chase around trying to find the best curriculum. But there are costs—both hidden and not hidden—in using them.

  • Mary Kochan

    Kathryn, if you want your child to learn Catholic spelling words, have your child learn them. You can add on whatever you want in the privacy of your own home. If you buy Catholic Heritage Curriculum, but you want to use Seton spelling, what do you do? I guess you buy Seton Spelling. You know Catholic words aren’t the only words your kid will need to know how to spell, so I don’t see the issue. it isn’t as though learning other words damages the child.

    I think that a lot of people would be perfectly happy to do away with tax-payer funded schools if it meant they would get their taxes lowered. But the fact is that that is not going to happen. There is always going to be SOME kind of public education. The realistic issue within that framework is how to maximize parental and local control and be economically just.

    Your point about hidden costs is well taken. The money part of it though is crucial for a lot of families. A lot of families who otherwise could not homeschool are doing so using the virtual academies and that is a good thing. Those kids are being removed from an environment that is often morally and physically dangerous and are accomplishing their learning under the eyes of mom or grandma, attending weekday Masses, and benefiting in many other ways.

  • Claire

    Mary, do these virtual academies mandate sex ed, “health”, and other subjects that are pretty common in mainstream public education? I assume this might vary by state? That could be a deal-breaker for me, although if my only alternative was to send my son to public school where he would have to take these courses anyway, it would certainly be better for him to be exposed to them in the home with me to filter the material.

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