SEPARATE BUT MAS QUE IGUAL

NEARLY HALF OF ARIZONA'S HISPANIC CHILDREN DROP OUT OF PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOLS. SOME PARENTS THINK THE SOLUTION IS HISPANIC CHARTER SCHOOLS.

Sometimes, it is a matter of survival. Poorer Hispanics may be working multiple jobs or caring for housefuls of children. Transportation is always a problem for the poor.

Recent immigrants are even further away from the action. Parental involvement is not customary in Mexico, where parents generally relinquish authority over education to the schools. Some of the newly arrived also fear they might jeopardize precious citizenship by making waves in the school system.

It is entirely unclear whether charter schools will, in and of themselves, make more Hispanic parents partners in the educational process. While Hispanics generally agree that there's a problem in the public school system, they don't necessarily agree on an answer.

Some are dead-set on change within the existing school system. Others see little hope in continuing that fight.

But when Hispanic charter schools are formed early next year, they probably will encounter many of the problems that the public school system has so far failed to address in minority communities.

The Arizona Hispanic Community Forum earlier this year made political history when it joined Governor Fife Symington in support of a traditionally Republican proposal--giving parents vouchers that could pay for private school for their children. After a bitter legislative battle, the voucher effort failed, but it was prompted by the same concern that is driving Hispanics to create charter schools.

The public school system is failing to properly educate overwhelming numbers of kids.

But charter schools are no panacea for Arizona's educational problems.
First, to have any chance of surviving a legal challenge based on the U.S. Supreme Court's desegregation rulings, charter schools almost certainly will have to be open to all comers. Such a challenge could come from many quarters; school districts that lose students (and the state funding associated with them) to charter schools seem likely to sue.

But trying to be all things to all kids--including non-Hispanic kids--is likely to cause many of the same problems the mainstream school system already faces.

Charter schools, by law, will receive the same per-child funding as other public schools. Most minority communities are relatively poor. The per-child funding--which is directly related to the value of taxable property in a school district--has, therefore, been grossly inadequate. In fact, this structural underfunding has been a major reason that public schools haven't been able to provide for the needs of minority children.

It remains to be seen whether charter schools can improve education if the system of funding is not significantly reformed.

The new schools, while free from most state mandates, also may run headlong into a battle with teachers' unions and the state school board if they don't hire state-certified teachers. Yet it is certified teachers who have produced a 44 percent dropout rate among Hispanics attending public high school.

The ideology of charter schools assumes that the public school system as a whole will benefit from the successful example of a few. But critics say that if public schools are relieved of the burden of educating all children, the result will not be improved instruction, but educational Balkanization and a rapid disintegration of what is left of the public school system.

That is a chance that Hispanic-charter-school advocates are willing to take. Their frustration with the public school system runs deep, their faith shallow. And their idea of "all deliberate speed" does not encompass decades.

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