Does School Choice Really Help Students? More than 2 million children currently attend charter schools, and that number is growing. But not everyone thinks the move away from public schools is best for students. Host Michel Martin speaks with one critic, Natalie Hopkinson. She's a contributing editor for The Root, and has two kids attending schools in the Washington, D.C. area.

Does School Choice Really Help Students?

Does School Choice Really Help Students?

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More than 2 million children currently attend charter schools, and that number is growing. But not everyone thinks the move away from public schools is best for students. Host Michel Martin speaks with one critic, Natalie Hopkinson. She's a contributing editor for The Root, and has two kids attending schools in the Washington, D.C. area.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, eating, activism and art. We will speak with a man who has had success by combining all three here in the nation's capital. Restaurateur Andy Shallal. We'll have that conversation in a few minutes.

But, first, we have another perspective on education reform, specifically the idea of school choice. Now, many people think of school choice as about allowing kids to attend private schools with public funds, but another option is charter schools and those have grown dramatically over the past decade.

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, more than two million children currently attend about 5,600 charter schools in the U.S. and President Obama's Race to the Top education program provides public support to some charters deemed high performing.

But not everybody thinks these schools are serving kids the best way possible. One of those critics is Natalie Hopkinson, a contributing editor for Her opinion piece, "Why School Choice Fails," was published in the New York Times this month. She has two children attending schools in the Washington, D.C. area, one in a charter school and one in a private school, and Natalie Hopkinson joins us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

NATALIE HOPKINSON: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, what caused you to try to navigate the public schools in this way, or the public/private charter dilemma in this way? What wasn't working?

HOPKINSON: Well, first of all, our first choice would have been to really invest in our neighborhood school and we live in, you know, an inner city community near Howard University and that would have been our first choice. But we quickly got indications from the administration there that, you know, I was told that these kids have problems and explore your options. So that was my introduction to choice when my son was just six months old and in a stroller.

So we've been on this journey. We've been to traditional DCPS schools. We have been to parochial schools.

MARTIN: Meaning, D.C. public school?

HOPKINSON: D.C. traditional neighborhood public schools that are high performing. We've been to parochial schools and now my eldest is in middle school age and so I feel that this is really where the cliff begins because there's so much excitement and I'm sure there are a lot of parents who right now are going through the - you know, it's really actually exciting. You apply, you go to, like, 10 open houses. You get on a million waiting lists and you see what happens and maybe you make it through elementary school and then there's this cliff and that's middle school.

MARTIN: Your specific beefs about charter schools are that, you know, there's a lot of hype and excitement about them, but you're saying, not only do they not live up to the hype, but in fact, you've seen, in some ways, they're actually detrimental. Several things that you write.

One the one hand, you say that they've destroyed community-based education for working class families. Number two, you think that they lead to re-segregation and that they consistently perform worse than traditional schools, yet are rarely closed.

I'm going to dispute your facts on the last one, which is that the National Alliance for Public School Charters reports that, here in D.C., four new charters were opened last year and three were shut down. And I also think that the evidence shows that the charters consistently perform better in some grades and worse in others so that it's mixed.

But let's talk about those other two; that they, in fact, contribute, in your view, to the destruction of traditional neighborhood public schools and that they lead to re-segregation. How so? And what's your evidence?

HOPKINSON: Well, they are - I mean, basically, the whole structure is an experimental structure. So you open up a school, it doesn't work, you close it down. That child has had to readjust to, you know, two, three different school settings and that's not healthy for anyone. And there's really this - the main issue that I was getting at in the New York Times piece was we have lost an entitlement to a neighborhood education that some people in the city have and we don't. And so, if you're talking about public education, you're talking about - well, what do you have access to? What are you entitled to have?

As a resident of Ward Five, I am not entitled to a middle school, period. I must sign up for a lottery, so I have a problem with the experimental nature of it and the sort of like trial and error; like, oops. OK. Sort of the attitude is - well, these kids are at - you know, those kids are at risk and what's a few more risks for them? And I don't think that's acceptable.

MARTIN: So a year is a long time in a child's life, so moving a kid from school to school to school, year after year, you think that might sound fine on paper, but in actual reality it's just not great?

HOPKINSON: I don't think it's even fine on paper. I mean, you're not - there's no stability. There's no foundation for us to build on and, you know, I feel like all these years in, you know, looking back, you've been choosing, choosing, choosing and you've been disinvesting in your own community and there's nothing for everyone. There's no ground for everyone to stand on.

MARTIN: There's no floor?

HOPKINSON: There's no floor.

MARTIN: But, you know, it seems to me that the core of your argument is that, really, it goes back to the basic argument around school choices, which is, on the one hand, you know, you say, well, the whole point of school choice is to expand choices, but it really doesn't. It just rearranges the deck chairs. It's that the investment and the excitement and the hype and all the innovation flows to the new thing.


MARTIN: And the old thing is left to wither on the vine. Do I have that right?

HOPKINSON: Absolutely.

MARTIN: But there are those who would argue that you're romanticizing the traditional public schools. For a lot of people, traditional public schools dating back generations have been a nightmare and the only difference was that working class kids didn't have any choice, even on paper. What would your argument be to that? What would your response be to that?

HOPKINSON: Well, and you know, that's sort of the boogie man that you get. Well, then, you know, maybe some communities shouldn't get traditional neighborhood schools because, you know, kids have struggled on a test at one point. I mean, you're talking about disinvestment in certain communities that will last for generations. Once you take the building away, it's gone forever and there's nothing you can do about it.

I'm not seeing them approving any new, traditional neighborhood schools. I see them opening up new charter schools, which again, I'm not against charters at all and, actually, my argument is not against charters. It's against the whole choice-based - like the idea that we're just going to choose our way out of this mess.

MARTIN: Where you are now, as you sit here now and you've got your kids in two schools - and I hope they're doing well, or at least OK enough that you feel OK about life. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about what's down the line for you?

HOPKINSON: For me personally, you know, my husband and I are - we have really good jobs. We're very educated. We have, really, all the choices that any middle class person has in this city. We could move to Columbia, Maryland if we choose to. We could move to Ward Three if we choose to.

MARTIN: Ward - Columbia, Maryland being a suburb, Ward Three being an affluent part of the Washington, D.C...


MARTIN: ...of Washington, D.C.?

HOPKINSON: Yeah. So I'm not so much worried about us because whatever we have to do to get our kids through and make sure that they stay on the right path we're going to do. What I'm really concerned about is that this sort of idea that some kids deserve this and some kids don't deserve that because they're bad anyway. You know, like, this is what I have the problem with.

MARTIN: Natalie Hopkinson is a mother of two in the Washington, D.C. area. She's a contributing editor for The Root. That's an online publication that focuses on issues of particular interest to African-Americans. We were talking about a piece that she wrote called "Why School Choice Fails" for the New York Times and she was nice enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios to talk about it.

Natalie, thanks so much for joining us once again.

HOPKINSON: Thank you.


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