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Rajagopalan: Charters a worthy school option

Kavitha Rajagopalan is the author of "Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West."

Does universal free public education have to be uniform?

The charter school movement emerged in the late 1980s under the rubric of "schooling by choice," offering independently run but publicly funded educational experiences that specialized in particular areas like science or art.

Amid national debates over education reform, and local battles over school budgets and teacher pay, charter schools have become another battleground. But they could just as easily be a real answer to a number of tough questions, such as who is responsible for a young person's education, and what that education should look like.

Since the first charter was founded in Minnesota in 1992, these schools have been offered as a smaller option to underfunded, overcrowded, underperforming city public schools. Many are not subject to regulations and statutes that apply to other public schools.

Recently, charter schools have been proposed in affluent, high-performing suburban school districts, such as Loudon County, Va.; Montgomery County, Md., and Evanston, Ill., offering longer hours or specialized curricula, such as language immersion.

But some proposed charters are facing organized opposition in these wealthy districts, where parents and administrators say the publicly funded, privately run schools threaten to drain money from them for no reason. If these schools are "doing their job" -- that is, producing high test scores -- why should districts bother to provide students and parents with different options?

This raises important questions about the goals of public education. Are we really satisfied simply with high scores? And do these tests improve our children's abilities to live productive lives in a changing global marketplace?

One New Jersey parent opposed to a proposed Mandarin-language immersion charter school told The New York Times that he thought that public education is a social contract in which residents share money but should not have the right to custom-design education to meet their own needs.

Why not? Why should this only be the purview of parents willing to pay for private schools?

Education theorists like Edmund Gordon Sr. say there is no one-size-fits-all solution for education. In his model of comprehensive education, Gordon promotes it as a whole-life, guided process, including out-of-classroom learning experiences and supported by a community of adults.

Granted, there are valid objections to diverting funds from public schools struggling to meet national education goals and guidelines. Some school officials oppose efforts to found Long Island's first charter high school in Hempstead, saying the school would divert funds from the other schools and draw away high-performing students at a time when the district is striving to improve its graduation rates.

But this brings us back to questions about how we track the success of public schools. Education is more than a simple numbers game -- an accounting of students who have the highest scores and how many people graduate from high school.

Customized, community supported, whole-life learning should not be seen as a selfish luxury or simply an alternative to unviable schools, but rather as a new model for what public education should be. And wouldn't this be something worth hard-earned taxpayer money?

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