Of minivans and charter schools

An article in the September 12th edition of the Indianapolis Star (not available online) reported that the Hoosier State's charter schools are starting to sprout in the leafy suburbs. Similar news came out of Minnesota last summer. Is this a trend? And is it good for the charter school movement?

 

Suburban parents' reasons for choosing charters are varied. Some are looking for smaller education settings. In upscale Carmel, Indiana, for example, a number of students and parents, concerned that the local Goliath of a high school (the 4,000-plus-student Carmel High) isn't a good fit for them, are opting for the David-esque Options Charter High School (student population around 130, with a waiting list of more than 60). Five other suburban charter schools in Indiana are attracting students for similar reasons.

Marty Dezelan, who heads Ball State University's charter school office, is quick to point out that this expansion of charters into the suburbs is a "trickle, not a flood." Nevertheless, more suburban-based schools are in the works to meet the rising demand for slots.

Other parents want charters that offer a back-to-basics curriculum, which frequently isn't found in their children's local schools. National Heritage Academies, for example, has some 50 schools in five states - many in the suburbs - catering to parents and students who appreciate the back-to-basics philosophy. One of these schools, Canton Academy in Canton, Michigan, has a student population of around 600, and a waiting list nearly as long. And its students are, for the most part, far from poor. Less than 6 percent of that city's population lives below the poverty line.

Some suburban Minnesota parents are turning on to charters because these schools can specialize. In addition to Core Curriculum schools, charter schools are "offering arts education,... foreign language immersion, and other specialties."

This interest in charters by suburban parents should surprise no one. The notion that suburban schools are bastions of intellectual power has been proven wrong time and again, most powerfully in Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids and the Attack on Excellence by J. Martin Rochester. And some suburban parents have long known this. In the past, they've exercised their right of choice by educating their children at home or placing them in one of the many Catholic or Protestant schools mushrooming in bedroom communities across the country.

But is expanding into the suburbs good for the charter school movement? There is some reason to be concerned. Most notably, suburban charters increase the risk that charter schools will be labeled as elitist institutions. This charge has hampered the charter movement as a whole in Colorado, where charters have a strong suburban (and rural) presence, a relatively (for charters, anyway) lower percentage of poor/minority pupils - and in response have something of a reputation for functioning as publicly supported "private" schools for white, middle-class students.

But there's much to be gained politically as well as educationally by soccer moms being able to pull their minivans up to the doors of their favorite charter school. Most notably, suburban charters would greatly expand the base of support for the charter movement, and perhaps lead policymakers to remove the onerous caps that now hamper charter growth in so many states. (Those caps include barriers even to creating suburban charters. In Ohio, for example, caps restrict start-ups to districts in serious academic difficulty.) On the other hand, suburban legislators who have, to date, been supportive of charter schools "for other kids" might balk once the school districts they represent start to feel the pinch of competition.

Still, the war for school choice marches forward, and suburban charters may well prove to be the battalion that turns the tide. That would be good for moms and dads in every community.

 

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