“Does Harvard make the man or does the man make Harvard?”
There exists a popular myth regarding Oklahoma’s charter schools. This myth states that charter schools take the most motivated parents away from traditional schools, and that these parents are the cause for the success of Oklahoma’s proliferate charter schools. This idea also implies that this action, if true, is detrimental to traditional schools. Children with motivated parents, charter school opponents say, will succeed no matter what school they attend. To follow this line of thought, if all of the motivated parents from three local schools moved to a single charter school, the community would be left with one successful charter school and three failing traditional schools. This myth states that rather than the school making the student, the parent makes the student, which in turn makes the school. This is fairly illogical.
Oklahoma's charter schools are public schools that generally "promote a specific curriculum and learning style and are operated by parents, teachers and other interested community members" (State Department of Education). The primary objectives of these schools are to improve student learning and encourage innovative teaching methods (Oklahoma Supreme Court Network). They are not allowed to limit admission based on ethnicity, gender, income, scholastic ability or history, or any other traditional measures. They must accept all eligible students to capacity and meet a variety of accountability criteria, including participation in state-wide standardized testing. In this way, charter schools should act as a breeding ground for advances in Oklahoma’s education. If, however, the reputation of the charter school model is besmirched by myth, then traditional schools will continue their recalcitrance towards the educational ideas successfully modeled by Oklahoma charter schools, thus negating the entire purpose of the program.
The first section of this myth posits that Oklahoma charter schools take motivated parents from traditional schools. There are twenty-two charter schools in Oklahoma (SDE.gov). Some of them are no different than their traditional counterparts, save an emphasis on science or fine arts, meaning that a motivated parent isn’t required. It’s more likely that the student persuaded their parent to enroll them in the focused charter, rather than enrolling them in their traditional counterpart, and required no additional effort on the part of the parent. Such was the case with Heather Ford, who graduated from Oklahoma’s Classen School of Advanced Studies, a traditional public school that requires both an audition and academic testing before enrollment (Ford). Regardless, a 2009 study from Stanford University found that low-income, minority, and low achieving students fare better in charter schools (CREDO). These are segments of our student population that are usually shown to be poorly served by traditional public schools, regardless of the efforts of their parents, thus giving lie to the myth of motivation.
“But,” one could say, “how does this claim hold up to schools that do require motivated parents? They’re the culprits here.” This is a good question. However, charter schools that require motivation aren’t taking motivated parents; they’re making motivated parents. Charter schools carefully market themselves to parents, most of whom are a ‘virgin field’, having never been exposed to marketing for K-12 education. The CEO of a top education marketing firm, Patty Kennedy, advises her clients that “Value [marketing] triggers engagement, decisions and action” in regards to charter school advertisements aimed at increasing student enrollment (Kennedy). Not surprisingly, at least to anyone who has ever worked in sales and marketing, the right presentation can turn previously dispassionate parents into educational cheerleaders, which is a factor that charter school critics rarely consider. So, even schools that require motivation aren’t necessarily ‘taking’ from the existing supply of motivated parents.
For the sake of argument, even if the first section of this myth had a basis in reality, the second part posits the idea that this action is detrimental to traditional schools. To recap, the idea is that all of the motivated parents will move from their hypothetical three traditional schools to the local charter school, leaving the community with one great charter school and three failing traditional schools. However, a 2004 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that “charter school competition raised the composite test scores in district schools, even though the students leaving district schools for the charters tended to have above average test scores” (Holmes, et al). So even when already successful students moved to the local charter school, the traditional school not only avoided harm, but actually benefited from the existence of the charter school.
It is true that many of Oklahoma’s charter schools require extensive enrollment paperwork, mandatory meetings and workshops, and parent volunteerism, which would serve to deter non-motivated parents from enrolling their children. It is also true that some already successful students do seek out the additional academic enrichment offered by local charter schools, and leave their traditional school. However, since motivated parents aren’t required across the board, successful students are not leaving traditional schools in any kind of numbers, and even when these things do happen, the traditional schools that suffer enrollment losses do not suffer from academic losses, it is obvious that these common rebuttals are mere straw men.
It is clear that the success of Oklahoma charter schools is not due to the implied thievery of motivated parents or their successful students from traditional schools. Instead, as posited by award-winning former public school educator Joe Nathan, charter schools are successful because of their free to shape the school to the students, rather than the traditional opposite (Nathan). Of course, even this advantage wouldn’t last long if traditional schools take lessons from their successful charter counterparts and improve their services. If they did that, they might not lose students in the first place, and they would fulfill the intent of our legislature in drafting the Oklahoma Charter School Act. Oh, and to answer the question, Harvard and the man make one another.
“Charting a better course.” The Economist. 7 July 2012. Pages. Print.
Ford, Heather. Personal interview. 5 December 2012.
Holmes, George M.; DeSimon, Jeff and Rupp, Nicholas G. “Does School Choice Increase School Quality?.” National Bureau of Economic Research. 2004.
Kennedy, Patty. "Charter Schools Get Smart About Marketing." Kennedy Spencer Marketing. 2010. PDF File. 13 November 2012.
"Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States." Center for Research on Education Outcomes, Stanford. 2009. PDF File. 13 November 2012.
Nathan, Joe. Charter Schools: Creating Hope and Opportunity for American Education. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. 1996. Print.
“Oklahoma Charter Schools Program.” State Dept. of Education. Online. 13 November 2012.
Title 70. §42-13. 1999. Oklahoma Supreme Court Network. Online. 13 November 2012.