James Shuls: Charter Schools are Giving Families Options

by James V. Shuls

When my wife and I found out we were having a baby, we began looking for pediatricians. We wanted the best doctor and because we had choices, we were able to find a pediatrician we loved. In almost every area of our lives, we have choices, but many families do not have options regarding where their children are educated.

James V. Shuls

James V. Shuls

The typical public education model restricts most families from having much say in the type of education their child receives because children are sorted by attendance catchment areas. The traditional model does have school choice; but those choices are, for the most part, limited to moving to a better neighborhood or paying for private school tuition. Many families do not have these options. In Saint Louis, this is changing. Charter schools are giving more and more families educational opportunities for their children.

I recently took a tour of six of the 22 charter schools in Saint Louis and was amazed at the differences among the schools. Gateway Science Academy students are focused on developing their expertise in math and the sciences through innovative programs. Preclarus Mastery Academy students are learning Latin and preparing for college success while students at Saint Louis Language Immersion Schools are immersed in Spanish, French, or Chinese. Grand Center Arts Academy students in one class were acting out scenes they had written, while students in the next room were learning a dance routine. Students at City Garden Montessori were spread out, working on self-directed learning projects as teachers provided guidance.

Each school focuses on academics, but each also has a unique niche, offering something distinctive to students.

The conversation about schools often focuses on state achievement tests. We ask how charter schools are doing compared to the district, or how the district is doing compared to the state. Those are worthwhile questions, but schools are doing more than preparing students for tests. The schools I visited offer students something unique that may or may not translate to gains on an achievement test, such as learning a new language or developing creative skills. When we focus solely on a school's performance on tests, we miss a big part of the picture. We miss the variety and options that these schools provide to families.

Critics of school choice often argue that families will not know how to make good choices or that students who remain behind will somehow be hurt by other students leaving. Both of these claims are unfounded. First, parents are very savvy and are capable of making choices for their children. I know nothing about the medical profession, but we were able to choose a great pediatrician. If anything, parents lack experience, but experience comes from having the opportunity to make those decisions.

Secondly, most of the scholarly evidence suggests that the traditional public schools are no worse off, and in some cases, are better when they face competition. As school choice has accelerated in Saint Louis, the St. Louis Public School District has also been improving. The district appears to be responding to the increased competition, opening innovative magnet schools, focusing on teacher quality, and exploring opportunities to improve. As they do, the portfolio of quality educational options in Saint Louis will continue to grow.

Robbyn Wahby, deputy chief of staff for Saint Louis Mayor Francis Slay, says three more charter schools are slated to open next year, and she expects that trend to continue in the foreseeable future. With more schools comes more opportunity; more opportunity means finally being able to ask, "Which school would best meet the needs of my child and my family?" That is what school choice is really about, giving families options.

If you have not had the opportunity to visit any of these unique schools, I highly recommend you do so.

James V. Shuls holds a bachelor's degree from Missouri Southern State University and a master's degree from Missouri State University, both in elementary education. He is a PhD candidate in education policy at the University of Arkansas, where he has worked as a graduate assistant for Jay P. Greene, PhD, Gary Ritter, PhD, and Robert Maranto, PhD. James joined the Show-Me Institute as its education policy analyst in July 2012. James is a former teacher, having taught four years in southwest Missouri.

James Shuls

James Shuls

James V. Shuls, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and a fellow at the Show-Me Institute.
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