Does Your Kid Need a Charter School?

Of course not. Charters are for poor kids—right?

Last week, driving home from work, I was lucky enough to catch this interview by Dave Davies with Sally H. Jacobs, author of a new biography of President Obama’s father, Barack Obama Sr. It was a fascinating look at the difference education can make in a person’s life. According to Jacobs, Obama Sr.’s father, the President’s grandfather, made his way from his native village to the city of Nairobi when he was a young man and was able to acquire some education. That gave him standing when he returned to the village, and he was able to procure an even better education for his son, who eventually attended the University of Hawaii and Harvard.

It’s a quick upward trajectory, from a Kenyan village to Cambridge, but it began because the President’s father was good at math (thanks, apparently, to heartless drilling by his father) and stood out when he started grade school.

A story in the New York Times over the weekend offered another perspective on education. It told how charter schools, once relegated to obscure corners of the inner city, are moving out into the suburbs—and suddenly attracting attention from well-to-do parents who didn’t feel concerned about or threatened by this new educational trend until now. In wealthy Millburn, New Jersey, parents have formed a protest group to argue that charter schools—gasp! This just in!—would drain their public schools of needed resources, just as they’ve been doing in inner cities for years. In the case of Millburn, the charter school would focus on teaching Mandarin Chinese. One of the protest group’s leaders is quoted by the Times as saying, “Public education is basically a social contract, so I don’t think you should be able to custom-design it to my needs.”

Closer to home, residents of Pottstown also gasped when it was made public that their superintendent of schools had been in talks with a charter school operator interested in coming to town—Gladwyne attorney, Chester charter-school profiteer and Governor Corbett major contributor (north of $300,000) Vahan Gureghian.

The American public education system for many years was a wonder of the modern world. It took a hodgepodge of immigrants from all over the globe and produced leaders of art, industry and science. Those schools weren’t specialized; if anything, they were even more cookie-cutter than our schools are now. Yet they excelled at finding and serving students with remarkable abilities no matter what their backgrounds were. What they had that schools don’t now is undiluted public support (well, with the exception of the portions of the public that sent their kids to tony private schools, and still do).

In general, charter schools haven’t proven to be any better than traditional public schools at serving children’s needs. And this is true despite the fact that in many cases, charters are able to pick and choose the students they’ll serve, excluding those with learning disabilities or behavioral difficulties. The splintering of our public education system into so many pieces, often with insufficient oversight and due to machinations by those with questionable motives, ought to be a matter of grave public concern. Maybe it will be, now that charter schools are proving lucrative enough to move out of the ghetto and into a neighborhood near you.