On Charter Schools and Swimming Pools: A Changing Tide in School Choice

Summer is a time when I am reminded that the world is divided into two kinds of people:  those who, when confronted with a cold swimming pool, enter one toe at a time and those who dive right in.

In the world of education, there exists a similar divide: those who are taking their time to warm up to education reform, and those who just dive in.

I was reminded of this analogy earlier this month when I attended the Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s K-12 Education Reform Summit. There an unprecedented collection of Virginia’s education stakeholders gathered in Richmond to dissect, praise, question, and challenge all aspects of education reform. Virtually every education role in the Commonwealth was represented, from university presidents to classroom teachers and principals, union leaders to state board members.

The whole time I was amazed by educators’ changing views about school choice. It seems more and more are simply diving in. 

Charter schools, for instance, no longer seem be the feared, misunderstood pariahs that they once were. Issues that at one time would have caused vigorous debate—for example that public charters are public schools—have shifted toward universal acceptance. Perhaps aided by the creation and continued success of a number of charter efforts in DC (think, the SEED school), Virginia educators are beginning to embrace the charter concept.

Despite this regional warming to the charter movement, presenters were careful to point out that they should not be seen as a panacea for all of education’s woes. There are, after all, terribly ineffective charter schools. But educators I met acknowledged that the charter model itself, if done correctly, offers parents a choice when it comes to their children’s education, and with more choices come more opportunities for success. This was the mantra of speaker after speaker who was handed a microphone.

While at the Summit, I was able to share a few meals with Eric Welch, a J.E.B. Stuart High School teacher in Fairfax County who is in the process of bringing the first public charter to the Northern Virginia area, Fairfax Leadership Academy. Eric lamented the county’s recent actions, caused by budget constraints, to eliminate a few of Stuart’s longstanding services that were really working for students, including an effective summer program. For him, creating a new charter offered a way to deliver many of these educational services that were being taken away. 

Eric no longer fears the charter movement, and many of Virginia’s educators seem to be jumping right in with him.

Mike Humphreys is a 2012-2013 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow who teaches physical education in Arlington, Va.


  1. There is no research to support the notion that charter schools or private schools fare any better than public schools. Why then is there such a push for privates and charters?

    The state of Tennessee conducted a study in the 1990’s that showed that small class size (13 – 17 students per class) had a profound positive effect on student achievement, but there is no rush to focus on something that would really address student achievement. Why is this?


    People in power have powerful friends that want to privatize public schools because they stand to make a lot of money doing so.

    Lets stop talking about “School Reform” which means only that the form of school would change, and lets begin an honest dialogue about what research shows would lead to “Improved Education.” The current movement is about silencing teachers who are educated and have more experience teaching children than anyone else at the table.

  2. In my city, charters enroll about 12% of the student population. Given the fact that they often have a longer day and are unfettered by the supposed antiquated and inefficient restrictions that exist in the traditional public school due to the unions, these schools should be strides ahead of neighborhood schools. Unfortunately, studies have struggled to prove that charter schools average out any better. At times, the lack of accountability can lead to gross mismanagement. Additionally, many of the teachers are inexperienced and often leave the school or even the profession in 3-5 years. “Reform” proponents are advocating “parent choice,” but quality educators know that parents shouldn’t have to choose. There are much better ways young people can spend the hours and hours they travel on buses and trains. Furthermore, a community that educates its children together is stronger. When a community sends its children to schools all over the city, they spend less time communicating and building together.
    The best solution is to build up schools in the community. Teachers and principals welcome helpful and creative solutions, and the community that comes together around them will be the better for it.

  3. Charters seem to be much more appealing for public partnerships and private companies in places like Fairfax where the dollars per student enrolled are way above the national average. One problem is in the public partnerships it is the Arne Duncan types who are in good with the rich guy who started the thing that make six figures while the money spend on students is decreased. One thing to note is Teach for America teachers, charter founders and those types generally get away from those pesky students within five years and become administrators, speakers, grant spenders.

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