What is really behind the Save Small Schools movement?

Last weekend, on April 20th, the Chronicle Herald was a veritable soap box for writers who all seem to be jumping on the band wagon of the Save Small Schools movement.

From Micheal Zwaagstra to Bill Black it seems those on the right of the political spectrum are suddenly out to save the little guy, price tag be damned. Even the editor in chief  of the Herald got in on the action.

Methinks I smell a rat.

Look, I’m all for saving small schools. Their impact on the quality of life for rural families is undeniable. But one must look long and hard at the motivations of those who are suddenly so vocal. Obviously teachers have a vested interest, and so do parents. But what on Earth would cause  a wealthy former Tory leadership hopeful and the latest “hired gun” from AIMS to weigh in on the debate?

Well, the answer was found in Micheal Zwaagstra’s article in which he suggested charter schools could fix the problem.

“Declining student enrolment, poor academic results and unpopular school closures are just a few of the problems facing this province” he wrote,”…[Nova Scotia] should… pass charter schools legislation.”

Considering he lives in Manitoba, one assumes he meant to refer to Nova Scotia as “that” province, not “this”. However, it is the certainty with which he trumpets charter schools as a saviour that is most at issue here.

The charter school system basically allows individuals to write a charter for a school and open one with an eye to offering an educational alternative to (and presumably an improvement upon) public education.  Funded with public education monies, they purport to allow parents choice in where to send their kids. However, all is not as innocuous at it seems.

To begin with, charter schools, if they manage to stay open, (many do not), do not always succeed at improving student performance. In 2011, for example, the Chicago Tribune ran a story which indicated that in several cases, students in charter schools actually performed worse than their public school counterparts. This issue has remained a major sticking point of the schools.

Secondly, charters themselves often contain a somewhat questionable educational logic, and often reveal more about the writers than they do about the schools. For instance, the charter of the Valhalla Community school, which Zwaagstra touts as a good model,  includes the memorization of prose and excellent penmanship among its core educational values. 

Finally, charter schools have been widely criticized as being exclusionary, in that, although they must have “open door policies” by law, they really only serve the needs of parents who have the time, wealth and ability to shop for preferred educational locations.

Let me give you an example of this. A recent US NEWS ranking has placed two charter schools from Arizona among America’s top five “Best High Schools”. These schools are part of what is the known as the BASIS charter school network. The reason for this success, according to one of their directors, is that the schools have a high standard of excellence, and demand a lot of their students. In fact, when asked why 10% of kids drop out of his school, the head of BASIS’ Washington DC campus stated that some kids, quite simply, were not prepared to do the work required.

Not prepared to do the work required? What about “unable” to do the work required?

You see, this is what charter schools can do. They can set up a system of “excellence” that only a certain type of student can attain. Students who do not have to hold down a part-time job. Student’s who do not have learning differences. Student’s whose parents are home at night and are educated enough to provide home support. The list goes on and on. These kids get to go to charter schools, funded by public money. Since there is only so much money in the pot, everyone else is left with less.

It is interesting to note as well that, according to The Washington Post, charter schools in DC expel more kids than their public school counterparts.

Two minutes after the first charter school opened in rural Nova Scotia, those aiming to create a multi tiered education system under the guise of “choice” would open a second. And we would be well on our way to a system where the affluent kids would thrive, and the rest  would suffer.

The Nova Scotians who are trying to save their schools are nobly defending their communities. I find it deplorable that anyone would try to use that nobility to advance a political agenda which, if successful, would only serve to undermine that effort.

Shame on them.


1 Comment

Filed under charter schools, Educational Change, Public education, Standards, Uncategorized

One response to “What is really behind the Save Small Schools movement?

  1. Hugh d'Entremont

    Many advocates of charter schools have as part of their agenda ridding themselves of the teachers union. When children do poorly in school the finger of blame is almost always pointed at the teacher who because of the union can neither be disciplined or fired. As usual the people who claim to have the solutions to education are mostly ignorant of the public school system.

    A child’s level success in school is a result of a combination of factors many function outside of the school system. Enough sleep, reading at home, proper nutrition, adequate exercise, and the ability to accept and follow rules all make it possible to succeed in learning. Add a well qualified and committed teacher, (in my seven years of supply teaching I have yet to meet disinterested teachers) to the mix and most children will be able to learn effectively.

    Getting adequate rest and exercise when you are riding a bus for 90 minutes each day is nearly impossible. Local schools can provide a wonderful learning environment without the long bus rides. Sadly, keeping them open is going to require some spectacular thinking and willingness to rethink what we imagine a when we think of a school.

    What we do not need is another layer of bureaucracy between the teachers and students, or more experimenting in educational models.

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