Dorothy van den Honert: Weaknesses in charter argument


PITTSFIELD — We produced five kids and lived in three different locations in Pittsfield, which meant that our kids experienced 60 different teachers. In addition, I taught for 11 years at Crosby Junior High and got to know a lot of teachers as people.

So I have a knowledge-based feel for the quality of the school system here, and I must say, it is excellent. My own kids and their pals went on to first rate colleges — yes, with a lot of scholarships and no extra tutoring or help from private schools — and have done very well.

So I have trouble understanding House Speaker Robert DeLeo's groaning over the awful possibility we might not have lots more charter schools in Massachusetts. Apparently he is afraid the question may be decided by a statewide ballot instead of just the state legislature. I must assume that he feels that he has more influence on the legislature than he does on the average voter.

DeLeo must think they are the answer to somebody's prayer, not to mention his own, as he wants the state to finance 12 more of them! And that's with no hard evidence that their results are any better than that of good public high schools.

His argument is that lack of charter schools will rob some students of "critical opportunities which would otherwise be available to them." He doesn't specify which "critical opportunities" he is talking about.

Since the school budget is already huge, it is arguable that we taxpayers need only make it cover the expenses essential to educate the citizens of a working democracy. In any democracy, citizens should be good at readin', writin' and these days, pokin' the computer. I would add to that, they must have some knowledge of local, national and world history, science, and at least one foreign language. This much must be paid for out of the state school department budget. And every student needs to be exposed to these things whether he is slow or fast, well-behaved or a spitball thrower.

Maybe what DeLeo is thinking of is more in the line of art — maybe painting, ballet, or playing an instrument. But while aptitude in the arts may enrich a person's life, the public budget need not cover developing it. As public tax money. it must stick to the cost of producing intelligent voters. Are art lessons the "critical opportunities" DeLeo is talking about? I doubt it.

My teacher-buddy, Bill Irvin, just wrote an Eagle opinion piece on the subject and produced a lot of statistics that I was too lazy to look up myself. First of all, he found that both public and charter schools accept everybody who wants to come, but the attrition rate (dropouts) of charter schools was 8 percent, as opposed to the attrition rate of the public schools he studied, of 2.4 percent.

Revealing numbers

The charter schools used out-of-school discipline 13.1 percent of the time, compared with public schools which used out-of-school discipline only 2.1 percent of the time. Obviously the time actually spent in the classroom was shorter for charter school kids. The numbers were even worse for black or Hispanic kids. For them the absence from classrooms was almost four times that of traditional public school kids!

But the worst is yet to come. Even if you don't send your kid to a charter school, you are paying for it, because your state taxes are already paying for local schools, and the same state taxes pay for the charter school as well.

There's another option available to an ambitious parent — private schools. Here's the difference between a charter school and a private school. The charter school money comes out of your taxes and the private school tuition comes out of your bank. But since your taxes also come out of your bank, you pay twice. It's just less obvious.

A rich person with a very bright child can send him or her to a private school, but he should know that he is then paying not twice, but three times- once for living in a democracy that needs educated citizens, once for whatever specialties he wants for his talented child. and yet another time for people whose kids go to charter schools and would otherwise miss the "critical opportunities which might not otherwise be available to them." Whatever they are.

Obviously the weakness in the argument from DeLeo and his pals is that he doesn't define those "critical opportunities" that he says are currently unavailable to public school kids. Music? Pittsfield High School has an orchestra that beats anything I have seen in public schools in years.

A number of public schools in the Midwest have found that their little kids of four or five years old who are taught to play a musical instrument very young learn to read books measurably faster and better! Apparently, when the child has to do different things with each hand at the same time, like playing an instrument, a part of his brain increases in size, and it happens to be the same part of his brain that is just beginning to match sounds with letters!

Maybe we should put public money into little kids' orchestras. The kids would have a ball.

Dorothy van den Honert is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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