Last month, I went to the ER for a head injury I sustained while playing basketball. (Caught an elbow in the forehead, though naturally I told people that I hit my head on the rim while dunking.) Though the wait was inconvenient and the co-pay hefty, it was a necessary cost: I needed stitches, and had neither the skill nor the resources to take care of it myself.
Education works in basically the same way, though hopefully with fewer lidocaine injections. Society has decided that an educated community is a public good that is worth paying for. And since it is both impractical and inefficient for individuals to be responsible for educating their own kids, we pay for somebody else to do it for us; we call these public schools. Sure, we have to fork over the money and deal with some inconvenience, like transporting our kids to and from school. But we agree that it’s a necessary cost.
That is why I am continually frustrated by arguments about whether charter schools are public schools. Besides being a ridiculous argument in the first place–even the NEA definition of charters calls them “publicly funded elementary or secondary schools”–it is a distraction from what actually matters in education: whether kids are learning.
The basic reasoning for public education is that it is in the community’s interest to shoulder the cost of educating children, just as it was in my interest to shoulder the cost of an ER visit to get medical treatment. Expanding use of charter schools does not alter that model in any way; all kids are still receiving an education on the taxpayer’s dime. Is the money diverted from the established bureaucracy? Sure. But it isn’t dismantling or destroying anything except old appropriation decisions.
Instead of wasting our time on labels, we should be ensuring that schools are effective. Whether traditional public, charter, or alternative, if schools aren’t educating our kids there is no reason to have public education at all. If I weren’t confident that a doctor could have stitched up my head, I wouldn’t have bothered to go. Yet as education in this country continues to hemorrhage, people are more concerned about the names of the stitches than whether they can stop the bleeding.