Charter Schools Threaten Public Education in America

Charter schools have become incredibly popular in the United States since the first school opened its doors in Minnesota back in 1992. The “school choice” movement and advocacy for allocating government funds to support these quasi-public institutions has gained considerable traction under the current administration.

Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, has essentially waged a war on public education by throwing all of her support to the charter school industry. If we are not vigilant, public education could soon disappear and be replaced by charter schools.

What are Charter Schools?

Charter schools are advertised as being “public, tuition-free schools that are open to all students” that are established by “teachers, parents, or community groups.” In truth, however, most charter schools are publicly-funded private institutions that are established and run by large corporations.

Unlike public institutions, which exist to provide all students access to a free, high-quality education, charter schools exist to line the pockets of the wealthy and undermine efforts to create an informed and educated society.

Purpose of Education

Public education is an essential tool of a democratic society. Democracy requires the informed input of involved citizens. Our public schools are the perfect outlet for providing each young generation with not only knowledge but the skills and analytical tools that are crucial for success in life. Democracy is threatened when students do not receive the foundation that is necessary to be a contributing member of society.

Democracy is threatened by the rise of charter schools. Why? Charter schools are a great way to (1) sidestep the purpose of public education and (2) deprive students of a learning environment that fosters free expression and critical thinking.

Sidestepping the Purpose of Education

Public education has long been a way for parents, local lawmakers, and the community at-large to have a say in how their students are taught. While curricula are, to a large degree, set at the state and/or federal level, the local community still has the ability to influence what students learn and how they are taught. Using the community to teach students helps to create individuals who understand the basic tenets of democracy and the importance of civic participation.

Charter schools are often run by large corporations that have no other ties to the community. Instead of valuing the quality of the education that its students receive, concern lies with the bottom line. Charter schools are simply a mechanism of a capitalist society to generate revenue for the rich. Since a true democracy and an educated society threatens this system, charter schools are actually used to combat both of these things.

This is not to say that charter school students do not receive an education. They certainly have the tools to learn how to read, write, and perform simple math. However, these students are often not being challenged to think beyond the test and hone important critical thinking skills. Students today learn to accept what they are taught without question, rather than analyzing an issue and coming to a conclusion on their own.

Depriving Students of a Diverse Learning Environment

Public schools are particularly effective because they allow students to learn in a diverse academic setting. Student enrollment is increasingly diverse. In fact, minority students will soon account for more than half of all public school students. Exposure to diverse backgrounds, races, ideas, and orientations – of peers and teachers, alike – has proven to be a benefit to all students. Learning to embrace the simple idea of “other” helps individuals to integrate into an increasingly diverse world.

While charter schools like to say that they’re open to everyone, enrollment often tells a different story. Schools often lack diversity thanks, in part, to admission procedures. The schools craft procedures that help them secure the student body they want, not the student body that accurately represents the community in which it is located. As a result, students are deprived of the ability to learn in a diverse setting. When these students graduate and enter the workforce, they lack the interpersonal skills and understanding that are necessary to thrive. Instead of embracing and trying to understand those who are different, we are increasingly embracing fear and rejection of “other.”

Fostering this sense and fear of “other” is doing incredible damage to society. If you take a look at society today, there are so many ways in which we are divided. We are all human, yet we find ways to differentiate ourselves. These differences are not embraced or celebrated, but rather used to oppress and harm. While charter schools are not the sole offender, they are playing a very large role in the destruction of our democratic society.

The Rise in Charter Schools is Killing Public Education

Charter schools and “school choice” are not only becoming more popular with the general public, but with the government, as well. Unfortunately, the rise in charter schools is killing public education. Parents, fearful of government overreach and inadequate education in public schools, are sending their children across the street to quasi-public institutions As a result, funding that is essential to the operation of our public schools is being gutted and sent directly to charter schools. Many public schools have had to close in recent years because they simply do not have the funds to continue operations.

We need to protect public education. It is vital to our democratic society. Charter schools pose a serious threat to the institution of public education, which has been valued by our society since the day it was born. We must continue to support policy initiatives and funding operations that support public education and quality civics education. Without advocacy efforts, public education will soon be a thing that student may learn about in history books.

Fostering Democracy By Encouraging the Discussion of Controversial Issues in School

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the right to engage in free speech. Why? Our Founding Fathers apparently thought it was important to protect the right to speak freely without fear of consequence. One could infer, then, that our Founding Fathers firmly believed that even their greatest critics deserved the right and freedom to dissent.

Throughout history, critical changes have been secured because individuals spoke out against injustices that were carried out by our government. Slavery was once legal. Racial segregation was once legal. Women once lacked the right to be identified as a person for the purposes of the law. Dissenting voices, free to speak out against perceived injustices, shed light on important issues, gathered support, and evoked changes to the law. Dissent and the right to speak freely are critical to the function of a democratic nation.

Unfortunately, free speech is being hampered in society. There is perhaps no better evidence of this than our public schools. Teachers are demonstrably afraid of discussing controversial issues with students, for fear of retribution from local parents and the board of education. Instead, teachers shy away from current events and politically-sensitive topics and gear discussions toward sanitized and white-washed topics. And the fact that most students lack access to quality Civics education only aggravates the problem.

Discussing Current Events in School

As a result, students are not being given the opportunity to learn about open discourse, intelligent debate, and diversity of opinion. Public school needs to be a place where students have the freedom to openly discuss the issues that are present in society. Open discussions, including those about controversial or difficult topics, are a First Amendment right. Students must be introduced to the idea of free speech and dissent in the classroom.

Policies and Events Affect Us Differently

Students must be able to see how different policies and events affect their peers differently. The best way to highlight these differences is by discussing the hard issues and hearing different takes on those issues, first-hand. White students should know how their black classmates feel about the epidemic of police brutality and gunning down of black Americans. Students who identify as heterosexual should know how their LGBT classmates are affected by discriminatory government policies. Male students should know how the oppressive policies and rules adversely affect their female classmates.

If we are not adversely impacted by a law or policy we may not know its true consequences. While a law or regulation may be neutral toward you, it may be a devastating blow to others. Discussing hot topics and current events can help to shed light and varying perspectives on important issues. These discussions will not only help to foster critical thinking skills, but also educate students about our truly diverse and complex society.

Discussing Opposing Viewpoints

Just because students are engaged in discussions about current events does not mean that their opinions will coexist peacefully. If we hold a strong belief about something, we are more inclined to go to great lengths to protect it. The right to hold a dissenting opinion and speak freely about it does not mean that we should harm or put others down in the process of expressing it. Fostering important conversations in the classroom can teach students how to approach differences of opinion with an open mind and respect.

Actively listening to dissenting opinions is just as important as free speech. Students can learn to listen, digest information, consider alternative opinions, and decide where they stand on an issue. If, after meaningful discussion, a student is not persuaded by other viewpoints, they are free to continue voicing their own opinion. More often than not, however, listening to others can help us to form a better and more-reasoned opinion on a matter.

Classroom Discussions as a Foundation for Democratic Discourse

As a democracy, we rely on the input of an informed and well-intentioned society. Public school classrooms are the perfect place to not only teach our students, but to expose them to controversial issues. This exposure can help to create a well-rounded individual who is equipped with the tools that are necessary to be productive members of society. Dissent is key to democracy. However, dissent can only be effective if it grounded in morals and an understanding of our diverse community.

Our schools should embrace discussions of current events and allow students to find their voice. After all, they have the right to express that voice freely without fear of retribution. If we do not exercise this right, we may be doomed to lose it.

Students Do Not Have Access to Quality Civics Education and It Is Harming Our Status as a Democracy

The United States was recently downgraded by economists from a “full” democracy to a “flawed” democracy. The Democracy Index measures where different nations fall on a scale of governmental operations, ranging from all-out dictatorships to complete democracies. The Index analyzes freedoms and political rights within a particular country and uses that data to determine the type of government that best classifies that nation.

The War on Public Education Destroys Democracy

Why would the United States have recently been demoted to a flawed, rather than a full, democracy? There are many answers to that question. One important causal factor is the simple fact that our citizens are becoming less-informed, less-inquisitive, and less-involved in the system of government. As a nation, we have very little understanding of the rule of law and how our democratic society should operate. This is a direct result of the crumbling institution of public education.

Public schools once embraced courses that taught young students about the American system of government, their civic duties and responsibilities, and foundational American laws. These courses helped to prepare students to become engaged, inquisitive members of a democratic society. Students not only learned about what a democracy should look like, but also came to understand their role in the system.

Decline of Civic Knowledge

In recent years, however, the number of schools to offer courses that offer these vital lessons have declined rapidly  As a result, today’s society collectively knows very little about our government. Here are some horrific takeaways from a recent survey of Americans by the University of Pennsylvania:

  • Three-quarters of Americans cannot name all three branches of the Federal government.
  • One-third of Americans cannot identify a single branch of the Federal government.
  • More than one-half of the population does not know, or cannot properly articulate, which branch of government can declare war.

The University of Pennsylvania has been conducting this survey for years. Each year, the results show that Americans know less and less about our system of government, rules of law, and Constitution.

Since our collective knowledge about our government and law is declining, we cannot be thoughtful, informed, and meaningful participants in our democratic society. As a result, our democracy is no longer working as our Founding Fathers intended. How can our elected officials represent our desires and needs if we cannot and do not articulate what we want? Our elected officials no longer represent us because it is easy to deceive a constituency that isn’t informed about policy and important issues.

How to Restore a Full Democracy

How can we fix our country and work toward reclaiming the status of a full democratic nation?

Restoring Informative Courses in Public Schools

The first priority should be in fixing our public school agendas and curricula. We must introduce the idea of democracy to our students at a young age and teach them about the laws that impact them each and every day of their lives. We must teach our students that, as members of a democratic society, they have the power to influence legislation and fight for laws that they believe to be in their best interest.

Encouraging Students to Study the Law

The second priority should be encouraging students to harness their distress with and distrust of our government in a positive way. More young people are becoming vocal about political issues on social media. They are unhappy with how things are going in the country and using their social media platforms as a voice for their discontent. Unfortunately, social media can often devolve into dehumanizing and endless loops of arguments with those whose opinions differ from ours. Many times, these arguments lack the substance and foundation that are necessary to be meaningful and evoke change. Encouraging our youth to become learned in the law can be a tremendous tool in allowing these arguments to evolve.

Students and advocates can begin by petitioning to have law and ethics courses introduced in their local school districts. These courses can be instrumental in giving students a crash-course on democracy, law, and policy. If students are particularly interested in continuing this education, they should be encouraged to choose post-secondary courses that expand on these issues. This can include study in the fields of criminal justice, government, public policy, and even the law.

According to Sherwin Arzani, an attorney and legal scholar, studying these topics in depth, particularly in a law school setting, can help to develop analytical and critical thinking skills that are not limited to the practice of law. “Studying the law gives you the tools you need to argue and debate effectively,” Arzani explains. “Arguments are not just limited to the legal practice; public debate would be much more effective for evoking change if we, as a society, knew how to do it properly.”

Fighting to Restore Our Democratic Nation Through Education

A well-educated population is essential to a full democracy. Our democracy will continue to crumble if we do not provide our youth with the tools that are necessary to become active and engaged participants in society. These tools can be provided by (a) re-introducing civics courses in our elementary schools and (b) encouraging the pursuit of knowledge through the study of law.

We must continue to embrace and support policies that foster education in America. If we do not, we will continue to slide down the Democracy Index and become a nation that is unrecognizable.