Does a rising tide raise all ships?

Two days ago, the Democrat and Chronicle published a web essay by Laura Delehanty. I may as well just shut down the blog, because the piece is a more concise version of what I’ve been trying to say here. I should add that, when I met Laura, she told me she was “just a teacher.” I was, and am, amazed at what one teacher can do for her students and her community.

Last week, I went to a conference on improving Rochester’s graduation rate and the education outcomes of our city students. (I’m being intentionally vague because I didn’t love it.) What I did love was hearing a diversity of opinions about what can be done to improve Rochester’s education culture. At one point during the conference, people were asked to share their ideas over lunch. One community representative expressed hope that Rochester education leaders would partner with charter schools, and allow the charter system to be “a rising tide that raises all ships.” This metaphor puzzled me for a few days. The image of a rising tide, of floating ships, is powerful and enticing, especially when applied to education. But what does it really mean?

Before I jump into this, it might be useful to define what a charter school is. Charter schools are public institutions funded by local, state, and federal taxes. It does not cost anything to attend them, and families may choose to send their children. They are generally not affiliated with school districts. Rochester has a couple, but they are open to any student in the area. The teachers they employ are not held to state standards (not to say that they aren’t qualified, just that they don’t have the same training curriculum — many charter schools recruit teachers with a liberal arts background). Basically, in exchange for greater freedom of structure, charter schools promise the state that they will provide sterling education according to state and federal guidelines (this promise is the titular “charter”).

Okay, back to those rising ships. The assumption with this metaphor seems to be that, within the ecosystem of a community, educational improvement on any level will yield improvement for everyone. While I think it’s fair to say that a well-run charter school in Rochester could improve the city’s state rankings, I don’t think we can assume that the rest of the RCSD schools will benefit. However, charter schools are a relatively new phenomenon in Rochester, so I don’t think I can say anything conclusively about how they would behave here. For the time being, charter schools are “empty vessels” (Black, Charter Schools, Vouchers, and the Public Good). We don’t even know if charter schools are guaranteed to deliver a better education, so we can’t say for sure whether they will act as this rising tide.

And yet, something about the charter school system irks me. The American education system was designed to be a free schooling system that would educate and civilize every child. As I discussed in an earlier post, the egalitarian setup of our system doesn’t always shake out, but this is largely a function of our unequal society. Since our nation is so dependent upon the tenets and inner-workings of capitalism, our education system will only be as fair as the invisible hand allows. This, in part, explains the suburban exodus: for the families who can afford to move, there is a better education waiting outside of the city. So, in a way, charter schools address this imbalance by attempting to install high-achieving within cities like Rochester, giving city families a chance to choose something different. My fear is that a push toward charter schools will only amount to a push away from city schools. If our community directs its attention away from the suffering city schools, they will continue to decline, and there simply isn’t enough room for all of Rochester’s children at a charter school.

The American pattern of addressing the symptom and not the cause is encroaching on our city schools. We can’t abandon our crippled schools, and we can’t put them on life support while we try to make charter schools work. I think charter schools are the wrong answer to the right question. What do you think?

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