Controversy Over Charter Schools
The New York Times published two articles about charter schools in the past few days: the first, a profile of a school already in operation in Minnesota, and the second, a report on a proposal for a new school in New York. The school in Minnesota emphasizes East African culture; the school in New York would specialize in Hebrew language. What they have in common is that both are generating controversy.
Critics of these and other charter schools assume that public schools should be a “melting pot” where minorities abandon their unique languages and cultures and adopt American culture. Here’s a representative quote from the first article:
“One of the primary reasons that American society supports public schools is to give everyone a solid civic education,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian, “the sort of education that comes from learning together with others from different backgrounds.”
And here’s the answer the article gives to that lofty ideal:
But Dr. Suárez-Orozco says the reality is that most new immigrants become isolated in public schools, and that large numbers of them become alienated over time and fail to graduate.
I think there’s value in specialized cultural charter schools for academic reasons, in addition to the possible sociological benefits. How many high schoolers sit through a few hours of French a week, only to graduate with little knowledge of the language? They might have done better had they started in an earlier grade at an immersion charter school like this one in Kansas City. College students pay thousands of dollars to study abroad and learn about foreign cultures during a short period of time. They could have easily absorbed the same information while attending a culture-specific charter school.
We hear few criticisms of hour-long language classes or limited cultural education programs. But when a school spends every morning teaching a foreign language or culture — i.e., enough time to teach it successfully — then the outcry begins. If students learn too much about some individual subject, they’re not blending in with their peers who study it in less depth.
Students who are interested in math and science shouldn’t have to abandon those interests and assimilate in a school specializing in performing arts — or in a “regular” school, for that matter. And the same goes for students who want to learn foreign languages.