Arkansas Democrat Gazette
Rafaela Espinal lives in New York City, specifically Harlem. You might say she's in sales, at least part time. She gives sales pitches, hands out brochures and advertises regularly-even if it's just a sign on her minivan. She sounds like any good businesswoman. Except Rafaela Espinal was featured in the New York Times not because she's selling books or curtain rods, but because she's selling a school. A public school.
You see, Principal Espinal leads the Ralph Bunche Elementary School in Harlem. It's a traditional public school. But because of the competition from charter schools throughout New York City, principals have to sell parents on their schools.
Actually, you don't have to imagine-because those who came up with the idea of charter schools already did. One of the main reasons for creating charters in the first place was to force public schools to compete for students. Which is exactly what's happening in places that don't limit the number of outfits that can open charters. (Places like, ahem, Arkansas.)
The advertising won't work, as anybody in advertising can tell you, unless the schools are able to back up what they sell. Harlem's parents have dozens of charter schools to choose from-if they're lucky enough to win the lottery that's conducted to fill those much coveted places in charter schools. So traditional public schools must really offer more, not just promise it.
The result: Harlem's regular public schools are offering after-school tutoring, holding open houses so parents can check out special classes, hiring marketing companies to promote their schools, and even holding Education Fairs-similar to jobs fairs-to showcase their schools' attractions.
Yes, public schools-traditional, regular public schools-are having to do this. This, folks, is how it's supposed to work. And how it's working in at least one part of one big city.
Offering quality has become a matter of survival for many regular public schools-because state money followsthe students. Tough as that might sound, it does make teachers, principals and other staff work harder. It's called competition. And it works. The Times story followed Principal Espinal through an open house during which she told parents of prospective students about the spotless gym, huge auditorium and, get this, a swimming pool. There aren't many public schools in New York City, much less Harlem, that have functioning pools the kids can use.
The article said parents were impressed by the school. You have to wonder if they would have been if charter schools weren't pushing the regular schools to improve so much. Remember when public schools in Harlem were synonymous with danger and failure? And weren't about to change? My, how charter schools can work wonders-even in other schools.
LATELY, charter schools have been in the news in Arkansas, too. Consider the School of Excellence in Humphrey, Ark. The news hasn't been excellent; dispatches say that the school has some serious financial problems. After its director resigned abruptly, the interim director had to appear before the state's Board of Education this week. She said bills and taxes have gone unpaid, the school is going broke, and there's a criminal investigation under way. The Board of Education might end up revoking the charter.
Opponents of charter schools might point to what's happening in Humphrey as an example of why charter schools won't work. But some of us think the School of Excellence is yet another example of why charter schools do work: They can be shut down if they fail. Even while traditional public schools can go on miseducating and mismanaging generation after generation.
If the state does eventually shut down the School of Excellence, that, too, would be an example of how this charter idea is supposed to work. When schools are bad, they should be shut down so better schools can take their place. Why punish the kids by keeping them captive in bad schools?