Charters and Cherries

Posted: Nov 16, 2007 12:01 AM
Charters and Cherries

It's not the oldest libel against charter schools. The oldest may be the one about how charter schools are just the latest version of seg academies - that they siphon away white kids from public schools. (Never mind that charter schools are pubic schools, too, just differently organized.)

Charter schools as some kind of racist plot? That's not true across the country: Many charter schools turn out to have large numbers of black or Hispanic kids whose families want to free them from failing public schools so they'll become all they can be.

Many charter schools are all-black or close to it. See the KIPP school at Helena, Ark., now officially Helena-West Helena. Nor does this accusation against charter schools hold up here in Little Rock. The majority of the students attending its three public charter schools here aren't white. (Last time I checked, white kids make up 47 percent of those schools' students.)

Perhaps the second oldest charge against charter schools was echoed the other day by a lawyer for the Little Rock School District before the state's Board of Education, which was considering granting three additional charters for new schools in Little Rock.

According to the lawyer, Khayyam Eddings, these charter schools - which would offer an advanced curriculum in a number of disciplines, from math to Latin - would just "cherry-pick" the highest-achieving students, leaving the other public schools bereft of their best students.

How selfish of these students to want to learn as much as they can in the academic environment best suited for them, rather than raise the average test scores back in their regular schools! Have they no social conscience?

Kids who apply to charter schools don't seem to realize it's their solemn duty to hold themselves back for the sake of the common good, or the school district, or the collective welfare of all, or some such glittering generality or other.

It's never been clear what good purpose is served by holding onto these kids in the regular public schools. The educantists/social engineers have produced various justifications for the practice, which always wind up sounding like only rationalizations for this crime against young intellect, talent, or just true grit.

Who knows whether the students who would apply for this latest charter school are high, low or medium achieving? It's clear only that they're ready to better themselves - much like the nine black kids who had the gumption to apply for entrance to once white-only Central High School in Little Rock back in 1957 - and found themselves in the middle of a national crisis.

We're told that giving kids like these a chance to better themselves (and the rest of society, which is what well-educated people tend to do) constitutes "cherry-picking," clearly a grievous sin in times that elevate mediocrity.

But if encouraging the best or at least the most ambitious students is wrong, why not not eliminate all those Advanced Placement courses in public high schools rather than deprive regular classrooms of these kids' shining presence?

By Mr. Eddings' flickering lights, wouldn't AP courses be a form of, heaven forfend, "cherry-picking," too? Much like putting kids on separate academic tracks depending on their ability. Should we really hobble promising youngsters in the name of some deranged notion of democracy?

Of course no one serious about education would suggest such an unfair, destructive course. At least let's hope not. Because every student ought to be in a classroom that challenges the student, not holds him - or her - back. That's not democracy; it's an iron egalitarianism. It would be like putting weights on the shoes of our best high-school runners in the name of equality.

What we have here is a contemporary manifestation of the old spirit of leveling, which every democratic society since ancient Athens has recognized as the sure forerunner of tyranny. A good education, like a good society, ought to be about expanding horizons, not limiting them. It ought to be about providing more opportunities, not fewer - even for the most promising of our young. It ought to be about individual achievement, not collective mediocrity.

But all this really isn't about what's best for the next generation. It's not about education at all but about politics, power, money, and pride. That's why Little Rock's school district is fighting one of the best ideas to come along in American education since free public schools themselves.

Charter schools are designed to let teachers and principals work with kids free of the bureaucracy, apathy and lack of accountability that characterize our worst schools in this country.

Charter schools aren't just a promising experiment in themselves. They not only have to live up to the aims spelled out in their charter or shut down, but they also provide needed competition within the public school system. But certain school districts and their teachers' unions would rather hold on to unwilling students, and the state funds that go with them, rather than tolerate healthy competition.

Nothing so well illustrates the blind status-quo-ism that marks entirely too many American school systems as this vacuous talk about "cherry-picking" from a legal representative of a school district that is only too willing to do some cherry-picking itself (by offering AP courses) so long as it gets to maintain a monopoly over public funds.

Some of us have always been fond of cherries, and of quality in education, too. Both crops that should be encouraged, not plowed under. A good school system should be concerned about producing more good students, not limiting their choices.