I have never been much of a proponent of charter schools. I am the proud product of traditional public education from kindergarten through 12th grade and I always felt that public charter schools take away money, space, and resources from traditional schools. I remember that when I made my first attempt to go back to college four months after having my daughter Cereta in 1999, I read a book for one of my educational courses about the debate over charter versus traditional schools. It was — and still is — a very heated debate. At that time, I was not yet a teacher and my children were not yet enrolled in school. All I knew was traditional public schooling on Long Island and I sought the same for my two kids when they became of age for such educational decisions to be made on their behalf.
What I found was a marked disparity in the quality of public education from one district on Long Island to the next, disparities that were largely contingent upon the racial and socio-economic demographics of the constituents within a said district. Whenever life as a single mother happened and we had to move due to financial lack, my first and biggest question was the quality of the education provided within any potential community where we might live. For many years, my kids and I received Section 8 vouchers via the office of Housing and Urban Development (H.U.D.) to supplement our rent payments while I went to school and worked. Housing for such programs was almost exclusively offered in neighborhoods like Roosevelt and Hempstead, for example, that did not have thriving, competitive, safe schools.
You see, unlike within the five boroughs of New York where students can attend middle and high schools wherever they meet admissions requirements, Long Island school districts are strictly zoned for the residents of the neighborhoods in which they reside and are officially registered. Residents pay a lot in district school taxes and are not keen on non-residents benefiting from the schools for which they pay.
It was during these times of moving from place to place that I began to reconsider my position on traditional public schools. I recall that, at one point, I found a really nice apartment in Hempstead. Everything was brand-new and the rent was affordable. And it was right on the border of Garden City, a very affluent neighborhood with a top-notch public school district. I was determined to not send my children to the far more mediocre Hempstead Public Schools.
At the time there was a new charter school being built and I, one of the biggest traditional school proponents, gladly tossed my hat into the ring for two winning lottery tickets for acceptance into that school. I didn’t know much about it except for what the flyer for the school promised and what I saw when I went to visit the school in person. However, I felt that the unknown of the charter school had the hope of being better than the known of the already-existing and severely broken public schools of Hempstead. I appreciated that, as an informed parent, I had a choice where my kids went to school, a choice that a public charter school option afforded me.
Christian and Cereta didn’t get chosen in the lottery for that charter school. As a result, we didn’t move to that apartment in Hempstead. That was many, many years ago. Christian and Cereta are, respectively, a junior in college and a high school senior. No longer is the choice of traditional school versus charter school of as much relevance to me as a parent; it is, however, taking on a new level of importance for me as a teacher.
I am still very much a proponent of traditional public education. I work for a school system that educates over a million children across New York City. I appreciate the way that the NYC Department of Education avails school choice to students based predominantly on aptitude, not zoning laws. What has changed is my realization that charter schools do have a meaningful place at the table of public education.
Now let me be clear: Charter schools are not a quick-fix remedy for broken traditional schools. There are charter schools that are just as broken; that suspend students and contribute to the school-to-prison-pipeline just as much as public schools do; that over-test students and over-work teachers. And then there are charter schools that are a welcome breath of fresh air to parents who, perhaps like me not too long ago, can only afford to live in neighborhoods where the traditional schools in that community are not of the highest quality, but desire a high level of education, nonetheless, for their child(ren). Charter schools provide this vital access to choice.
Whether charter schools are better than traditional schools is still a question that remains very much unanswered in my mind. I think that it’s fair to say that all schools are not created equally, regardless of whether they are part of the traditional or the charter school system.