Education: About Charter schools and Teach for America

While Teach for America has been Idaho’s biggest educational issue this month, a Washington State court delivered a bombshell by declaring charter schools against their state constitution, one with wording very much like Idaho’s.

December 12th, Judge Jean Rietschel of the Superior Court for King County ruled the use of state funds for charter schools violated the constitutional provision requiring that state education revenues be “exclusively applied to the support of common schools.”

Sneaky little word, “common.” One might think that, with state-funded charter schools in 42 states, they could be regarded as “common.” Not so. According to the judge, the traditional meaning of “common schools” is open to all and governed by an elected board.

Of course, appeals are certain, but, as education pundit Diane Ravitch points out, charter schools have used the claim that they are private corporations to fend off lawsuits by employees and, in one California case, to avoid prosecution for misuse of public funds.

This ruling has to be unsettling to the directors and employees of Idaho’s nearly 50 charter schools as well as their 16,000+ students. An uncertain future can only hurt the search for financing for start-up costs and buildings.

Like many educators, I have mixed feelings about charter schools. Some things are good—choice, small, parental involvement, expanded curriculum. Meridian’s technical and medical charter school graduates have marketable skills few others their age have.

The negatives, however, cannot be ignored. Charter schools take not only funding away from public schools, but also many student role models and involved parents. Charter school student bodies tend to be homogenous, depriving their students of exposure to the cultural diversity of our society.

Public schools have been melting pots where a doctor’s kid might be partnered with a homeless one, an Anglo with a Hispanic, an academically-minded student with a so-so-one. Students usually learn to respect and value persons with other backgrounds and skills and to reject stereotypes about “all” members of a culture.

How can our melting pot work when kids only meet students selected for being like them?

We need to address this challenge because it is likely that any court rulings will change the relationship between elected school boards and charter school governance rather than eliminate the charter school.

Now, about Idaho’s problem with Teach for America.

The argument that our teacher shortage justifies hiring teachers with little training rankles. The state of Idaho created our teacher shortage by heavy-handed anti-teacher measures. During the downturn we made heavier cuts in teacher numbers than any other state, cuts which forced teachers to carry heavier work loads and heavier guilt for the kids they couldn’t reach. Our state government followed that up with insults to their professionalism and attacks on their rights. This teacher “shortage” was artificially and purposely created.

Ironically, TFA attracts college graduates into teaching by pointing out the professional skills that teaching requires. Their website implies that teaching for two years will give you the leadership ability to conquer the world. Certainly a different view than our legislature’s, which seems to be that teachers are natural malingerers who must be hounded and controlled.

According to the TFA website, their training enables new college graduates to raise students’ expectations, plan backward from student goals to classroom activities, adapt their efforts for maximum student learning, and work continuously to maximize student learning.

In five weeks.

It brings to mind the story of a man who asked a golf pro how much he’d charge to teach him golf that afternoon. The pro said $5,000.

The man protested that was outrageous. “You teach 12 sessions for only $900!”

“Twelve sessions,” the pro said, “doesn’t require a miracle.”

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