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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