RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin, and this is For the Record.
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MARTIN: It used to be a given. When your kids reached school age, they'd strap on their backpacks and head for the neighborhood elementary school or you'd pay a hefty tuition to send them to private school. In the last two decades, a third option has emerged. Today, there are more than 6,000 charter schools in the United States. They've been the subject of passionate and often acrimonious debate about the right way to fix public education in America. Charters are publicly funded and privately run. They're a place for educational innovation. But they're also the subject of resentment from public school workers and parents who say they're siphoning resources. It's a familiar fight. There are lawsuits underway in 45 states.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A new chapter in New York City's charter school debate...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The lawsuit was filed by more than three dozen D.C. charter schools.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The California Charter School Association has filed a lawsuit...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: A group of Baltimore public charter schools have filed a lawsuit aimed at requiring...
MARTIN: In Baltimore, more than a dozen charter schools are suing the city over funding. The whole thing underscores the difficult decisions parents have to make. For the Record today, the personal choices in public education. Today, we're focusing in on Baltimore. Two parents, two perspectives, two different choices.
MARITA KING: I am Marita King. I live in Southwest Baltimore, and my children go to Southwest Baltimore Charter School.
BEN DALBY: My name is Ben Dalby, and I have a fourth grader and a first grader now at Hamilton Elementary and Middle School.
MARTIN: We're going to hear more from Ben Dalby in a moment, but first Marita King. Her son enrolled in the local public school in kindergarten. He started out above grade level. But then in first grade, things got tough.
KING: There were two first grade classrooms that were completely overrun. They were - I think each classroom had, like, 35 to 40 students each. So they brought in a new first grade teacher who was not experienced with working with younger children or with children with behavioral issues.
MARTIN: Marita's son was not one of those kids.
KING: He was very quiet and he wasn't very social.
MARTIN: But that meant he wasn't getting much attention either. He started to fall behind. Marita says she was a constant advocate for her son. She talked to teachers, the principal, agitated to move him to a different classroom, nothing worked. And when he finally took the state assessment test for first grade, he failed to move up.
KING: Once they said that, you know, he needed to repeat the first grade, I was determined that he would not be repeating the first grade in that school.
MARTIN: So she started to look at her options.
What do you know about charter schools before this particular situation?
KING: I - before being introduced to Southwest Baltimore Charter School, I thought all charter schools were private schools.
MARTIN: Ben Dalby was pretty familiar with charter schools when he was shopping around for his kids. He's a teacher, and he's got public school teachers in his family. And when he toured the local charter school, he was surprised.
DALBY: I expected to tour this school and find that it was all smoke and mirrors and they weren't actually doing great things for kids. And what I found was that that seemed to not be the case.
MARTIN: The space was beautiful, the principal was committed, but the whole thing kind of made Ben uncomfortable.
DALBY: There were going to be 200 applicants or something like that for a lottery that was going to have 12 or so - 14 or something slots available. And that - it made me angry, truthfully, that that quality education was going to be made available to such a tiny number of people in the city.
MARTIN: Marita King's son won a slot in the lottery at Southwest Baltimore Charter School.
KING: The second day of school, I pull up to drop them off in front of the school building and they both have groups of friends waiting for them to get out the car. Saying, Quallee, how's it going, and Moriah? And I'm like, OK, my children have paparazzi waiting for them...
KING: ...It was just the funniest thing to me 'cause, you know, none of the other schools embraced them that way.
MARTIN: Ben Dalby and his wife decided to send their kids to the neighborhood public school. They walk two blocks to their classes and they're really happy there. There's a band, a basketball team, even an art teacher. And in many public schools in America, that's a rarity.
You said you were angry, in a way, that a quality education...
MARTIN: ...that was being provided at a charter school was - that there were all these limitations and that it wasn't open to everyone.
DALBY: Yeah, right.
MARTIN: Does that mean that somehow, deep in your soul, you thought that a public education was lesser?
DALBY: Well, I don't think it's lesser. Well, yeah, I mean, I get - I don't - I guess I'm conflicted about an answer to that question. I mean, I think that there is no mystery about what works for all children. It's small class sizes, it's professional teachers who are treated like professionals, curricular flexibility, individual attention, diverse programming, you know, the things that private schools get - kids in private schools. And some charters in Baltimore City are able to offer a program that is more similar to that kind of model because they have more money.
MARTIN: And here's where it gets muddy. Charters and traditional public schools both get federal funding. In Baltimore, the argument is over how that money gets distributed.
KING: Charter schools do not get nearly half the amount that public schools get. Our charter school - we go out and we find ways to raise money for our school that goes along with the small amount we get from the government.
MARTIN: Ben Dalby says sure, some charters are providing a great education. But it would be better if all those resources and all the involved parents - if they just stayed in their local public schools and made them better for all students. Instead, he says, charter schools are siphoning money and energy.
DALBY: They have become viewed as a lifeboat or an escape hatch for the small population of families who are able to get into them. And I don't think that's helping the system as a whole.
MARTIN: But for Marita King, it's really simple. Charter schools are giving her son the education that works for him. And she doesn't feel alone anymore.
KING: The staff at the charter schools are willing to stand on the front line with the parents and fight for the students. You have parents at public schools that are willing to fight for their students, but they don't necessarily have the same backing or support of the staff from those public schools.
MARTIN: Ben Dalby is definitely all in with public schools - for now.
DALBY: But I can't predict the future, and they're my kids. So I am, you know, I'm going to do what I think is best for them at all times
MARTIN: And Marita King is taking it grade by grade, as well. She and her son will have to make another decision soon. Southwest Baltimore Charter only goes up to eighth grade. And they haven't ruled out the possibility that her son might go to public high school. But for now, he is thriving.
KING: He went from not being on grade level to being on grade level and surpassing grade level. So this year, he is just really doing excellent. He's no longer that quiet child in class. He'll raise his hand and ask for help.
MARTIN: Baltimore parents Marita King and Ben Dalby.
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