I want to believe that charter schools are a part of the solution to America’s public school problem. Lord knows everyone who’s a part of the reform establishment thinks they are. And while I think charter schools are showing some undeniable progress, I still have sincere misgivings about the race to pronounce the achievement gap conquered by KIPP, Harlem Children’s Zone, et al.

An article in the fashion and style (!?) section of Friday’s New York Times
inadvertently outlined the major issues I have with the stampede to build more charter schools. The article, which opens with a scene from a charity poker tournament at the posh W Hotel, highlights the growing number of hedge fund managers and other top finance gurus who are involved in funding New York’s burgeoning charter school networks.

It’s a fascinating article and details the many ways in which charter schools have generated enough buzz to elicit support from top policymakers as well as niches of society better known for expending capital on yachts and penthouses rather than educational enterprises. Implicitly, however, it shows how charter schools are draining resources and support — financial and otherwise — from the public school system. Technically charter schools are public, and yet they are largely free from unions and certain curriculum constraints. This makes them very attractive for financiers looking to support reform.

But while charter schools may have more freedom to develop alternative curricula and pay teachers as much as they want, the article (and outside observers in general) overstates distinctions between charter and public schools. The majority of public schools in NYC, charter or otherwise, have school uniforms, extended day programs that go to 5 p.m. and Saturday school programs. And yet charter schools have all the hype and the financial support that goes with it.

My main complaint about charters however is with their scope. Charter schools cater to some of the highest-need communities in New York City, but they admit students by lottery (a fact the article somewhat glosses over). The article does point out that only, “[a]pproximately 30,000, or 2.5 percent of the city’s public school students, attend charters, although in Harlem and parts of Brooklyn the figure is closer to 20 percent.”

Even if Obama and Bloomberg get their wish of expanding charter schools in New York City, they won’t service a significant enough number of high-need students to fix the achievement gap. On top of that, the high-need students they service don’t represent many of the most at-risk students — English Language Learners, special ed students and students with behavioral problems. That makes this comment from John Petry, partner of Gotham Capital and a major backer of the Success Charter Network, all the more ironic: “Helping the world one person at a time just isn’t for me.”

In bringing attention to the big money behind charter schools, the article highlights several of the flaws I see with the charter school movement. But it’s the article’s physical placement in the Times that made the biggest statement of all. Appearing alongside Burberry ads and an article about online sample sales, charter schools have emerged as the hottest new trend.

I’m not only lamenting the fact that many hardworking, progressive public schools are lacking the high-society financial support and op-ed columns. I worry what will happen when the buzz dies down. If the gains of these charter schools slow down, or if their major backers simply get bored and moved on to a new hip cause, what then? We need a widespread, sustainable solution to America’s education crisis. If charter schools are going to be a part of it, their success needs to be translated into the broader system, rather than nurtured as a passing infatuation.