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The Charter School Brouhaha

Ernest Wiggins

Charter schools were a bipartisan outgrowth of national concerns for the performance of public schools and the students in them.

Elected officials were worried that America was losing competitive ground to other countries in preparing young people in crucial areas of science and technology.

Fixing Public Education

As the Reagan-era National Commission on Excellence in Education wrote in their 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have even squandered the gains in student achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

Vouchers that allowed parents to send their children to any participating school within the district was seen as one way to incentivize underperforming schools to do better. This would bring market forces to bear on a situation that had defied other proposals economists said at the time. The results didn’t support the prediction as resource-starved schools continued to decline.

Federal charter schools were codified during the Clinton administration and spearheaded by U.S. Education Secretary Dick Riley, the former governor of South Carolina, known as the “education governor.” Charter schools were given greater autonomy to design curriculum and instructional approaches. They have been most notably successful in urban areas where innovative approaches to reach students with unique challenges were most needed.

Observers say they have been less successful in other locales, especially in places where charter schools are, for all intents and purposes, private enterprises that compete for students, not tethered to school district constructs and traditional practices. Observers say competition gives these enterprises little reason to share ideas or approaches. As a result, weaker schools stay weak or get weaker.

Parental Rights and Wrongs

Parents responded positively to the offer of wider choices. Still, charters have given some parents a chance to flex their entitled muscles like their private school counterparts without paying hefty tuitions.

In March, a Florida charter school principal included a photo of Michelangelo’s David in a lecture on Renaissance art. A few parents objected, one calling the statue pornography, which resulted in the school principal being forced to resign.

This brouhaha points to an additional problem with charter schools that is more cultural than economic. Indoctrination frequently replaces education in charters, which some charter parents said was going on in the public schools that pushed diversity and inclusion in the curriculum. Parents don't have to pay to send their children to charters; free of the school district strictures, many take religious approaches to curriculum and instruction.

Parents at a Florida school said they wanted to be informed when controversial material was shown to their children. The statue of David, which was part of a 6th-grade class lecture, was deemed controversial -- to the surprise of many who heard about this case.

The statue is on public display in Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze in Florence, Italy, and draws nearly 2 million visitors of all ages every year. I wonder if a slide of the Sistine Chapel’s Creation of Adam, which features the nude figure of the first man, would have been equally as controversial or deemed pornographic.

Moving Forward

Despite the entirely understandable outrage that led to a principal’s forced resignation, I don't think the proper response is to deride the school's actions or the parent calling the statue pornography, as tempting as that might be. I’m confident that would bolster the resolve of those wanting to keep inquiry and thought within "acceptable" parameters and turn virtue signalers into martyrs to pagan “wokeness.”

The better response might be for parents offended by the principal's resignation to push for policy changes on the "controversial subject matter," which undermines teachers, or pull their children out of the charter school, leaving it to social and cultural reactionaries.

The latter response would be in keeping with the founders’ intent and bring market forces to bear on a situation that might defy other solutions.

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About the blogger

Ernest Wiggins, Writer / Independent Scholar

Ernest L. Wiggins is a professor emeritus of journalism and mass communications at the University of South Carolina. For nearly 30 years, Wiggins taught professional journalism, news media, and community engagement, public opinion and persuasion, and mass media criticism, among other courses.

His research interests focused on mass media’s representation of marginalized communities, primarily news agencies. A native of Washington, D.C., Wiggins was a reporter and editor at the Columbia Record and The State newspapers before joining the faculty at USC, where he earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees.

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