If charter schools served the neediest children, if they recruited the students who had dropped out, if they made an effort to collaborate with public schools in a joint undertaking, they would have a valued place in American education.

But in the current context, they have been turned into a battering ram to compete with public schools and skim the ablest students.

Where will this lead? Will we have a dual school system in ten years, with one system (the charters) for the motivated and able students, and the other system (the public schools) for those who didn’t get into a charter?

Many years ago, Harold Noah–an economist at Teachers College, Columbia –described how the Soviet system eventually reproduced the same class inequities that existed in its schools before the Revolution. How certain schools were set aside for this elite and that elite, and eventually it became impossible to see what had changed.

Are we reverting to the dual system in American education that existed pre-1954? Will there be charter schools in gated communities to keep out the others? And charter schools to skim off the cream in poor communities? And impoverished public schools, overwhelmed by the students with the greatest needs?

A regular reader writes:

Enrollment-skimming, not whether charters provide a better education or get higher test scores, is the fundamental threat posed by charters.

Charters — by definition — populate their student body via enrollment.  This means that all of the students in a charter have parents who were sufficiently concerned/functional to pursue/complete the charter application.

In the low-SES areas — where virtually all charters are located — many parents are too unconcerned/dysfunctional to pursue/complete a charter application.  The result: Many/most of the children of the concerned/functional parents go to the charters while all of the children of the unconcerned/dysfunctional parents go to the neighborhood schools.

This passive enroll-by-application segregation operates independently of and in addtion to any affirmative discrimination by the charters against the “problem” students (i.e., ESL, LD, behavior problems) in either the application or the expulsion stages.

This passive enroll-by-application segregation practiced by the charters is, in many ways, analogous to the racial segregation practiced by southern school systems before Brown v. Bd. of Ed.

In the case of the racially-segregated schools, the govt created white schools so the white parents could avoid sending their white children to school with the children of black parents.  In the case of charters, the govt creates charters so the concerned/functional (albeit low-income) parents can avoid sending their children to school with the children of the unconcerned/dysfunctional parents.

The charter segregation is not as morally reprehensible as the racial segregation, but poses similar threats to society.  The charter schools, like the racially-segregated schools, result in a large group of disadvantaged students (the children of the unconcerned/dysfunctional parents like the children of the black parents) being educated in separate schools that are theoretically equal to the charter/white schools but are, in fact, inferior to the charter/white schools.

Society is still paying a high price for its failure adequately to educate generations of black students in the segregated schools.  If we continue the charter experiments, society will pay a similar high price for its failure adequately to education generations of children of unconcerned/dysfunctional low-income/inner-city parents in the neighborhood public schools.

Clearly, the socially-responsible approach is to operate a unitary school system while addressing the problems (i.e., misbehavior, low reading levels) posed by the children of unconcerned/dysfunctional parents via school reforms specifically targeting those problems (i.e. improved discipline, improved reading programs) in that unitary school system.