James Shuls: Charter Schools Are Not the Enemy


By James V. Shuls, Ph.D.

We all love to have enemies; not real enemies, just the kind that make us feel better about ourselves. For example, sports are more enjoyable when our team goes up against their rival — think Kansas City Chiefs vs. Denver Broncos. In politics, it's the same. We rejoice when our candidate or party defeats the opponent. There is something about having enemies that gives us the sense that our side is superior and that our cause is just. Lambasting someone else as the enemy is an easy way to secure support for one's cause, and this is exactly the tact taken by those who oppose the expansion of charter schools — charter schools must be stopped or they will destroy public education.

Right now, Missouri is at the center of a charter expansion controversy, stemming from the legislature's attempt to "fix" an interdistrict school choice law that allows students to transfer from unaccredited school districts to accredited ones. Lawmakers inserted a provision into the transfer fix that would allow for the further expansion of charter schools in Saint Louis and Jackson counties; charter schools are currently restricted to the St. Louis and Kansas City School Districts. In response, the editorial board of the Kansas City Star wrote, "This wrongheaded idea should never have gotten as far as it has." You see, the editorial board sees charter schools as a punitive measure — as the enemy.

The truth of the matter, however, is that charter schools are not the enemy of public education; they are but a means for ensuring every child has access to a quality public education. Along with members of the educational establishment, the Star's editorial board has bought into the "us versus them" charter versus school district mentality. Those who support quality educational options for every student should reject this notion.

Charter schools are free public schools that serve primarily disadvantaged students who lack the ability to move to better school districts or to pay for private school tuition. Charter schools are not a cure-all. Just as there are good and bad district schools, there are good and bad charter schools. The beauty of charter schools is that they allow bad schools to close and they allow new, innovative schools to take root. Studies, including the 2013 National Charter School Study by researchers from Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), consistently show that charter schools are improving over time as higher-performing schools become more established and weaker schools close. Most importantly, charters offer parents trapped in failing schools an alternative.

There should be no "us versus them" when it comes to the type of school a student chooses to attend. Whether a child is in a traditional public school, a public magnet school, a public charter school, or even a private school, the only thing that matters is whether that child is receiving a quality education. Indeed, we should be hawkish at fighting against failing schools in any sector.

There may never be room under one tent for Chiefs and Broncos fans. There is, however, room in the big tent for all those who support quality educational options for every student.

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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