Take Your Money and Run

How parental powerlessness distinguishes urban charter schools from suburban public schools…

By Emily Kaplan

This is how you get your child into a public school in an affluent suburb:

1. Make a lot of money.
2. Buy a house in an affluent suburb. 

Congratulations! Your child will now receive a top-tier education!*

*If you ever feel that your child is not receiving the education to which she is entitled, exercise your right to go directly to the administration and complain. (Your tax dollars pay their salaries, after all.) Work with teachers and administrators, many of whom have decades of experience, to create an individualized education plan for your child. Do not fear retribution: your child cannot legally be driven from the district in which you have chosen to live.**

**If you still feel that your child is not receiving the best education property taxes can buy, you may choose among several courses of action, including: going to the school committee (an elected board on which sits one or more parent representatives like yourself); running for a seat on said committee; sending your child to a private school; or moving to another suburb, where you may repeat the steps above until you are satisfied.

This is how you get your child into a Boston charter school:

  1. Possess the social capital to be informed about the existence of— and application procedures of— charter schools. (Good luck to recent immigrants, particularly those who do not speak English!)
  2. Make the harrowing decision that the education your child would receive in the local district school is so under-resourced and/or deficient, academically or otherwise, that you are potentially willing to tolerate one or more of the following characteristics of many charter schools:draconian discipline; an obsession with testing; a developmentally inappropriate curriculum; a curriculum which is not culturally representative of your family; an inexperienced team of teachers and administrators, many of whom have never taught in any other environment; treatment as a pawn in a drawn-out political ruckus about charter schools’ right to exist and/or expand (or not.)
  3. Attend lottery night, at which you will be informed by a charter school administrator that if— and only if— your child “wins the lottery,” he or she can have the chance to graduate from high school, gain acceptance to college, and succeed there. (According to her, if you “lose,” of course, the chances of your child having a fair shot in life are slim to none.)
  4. Look around the room of parents and their children, all of whom are just as desperate for quality education as you are.
  5. Realize that, statistically speaking, 90% of them will “lose.”

If you “win,” congratulations! Your child has a chance of receiving a decent education!*

*If you ever feel that your child is not receiving the education to which she is extraordinarily lucky to have “won,” well… she can always go back to the district you fled, right?

*       *       *

9464188873_435dd98910_b.jpg (554×848)Charter schools in Boston compare themselves to public schools in the city’s most affluent suburbs. If their students’ scores can match those of wealthy suburban children, they reason, they will face similarly abundant opportunities in life.

Even if scores are comparable, however, the schools themselves are not. While the best suburban schools provide students with a balanced school day and curriculum, enriched by a well-resourced environment led by experienced educators, the common charter school model is vastly different. Here, the school day is far longer (at many, children are in school for over nine hours), and even the youngest children have recess for only up to twenty-five minutes. (Where I taught last year, my second graders did not have recess until three in the afternoon, after they had already been in school for eight hours.) Suburban parents would never stand for the very things which make these schools distinctive: a rigid, punitive discipline system which suspends students as young as five; a pedagogical philosophy which prizes quantifiable outcomes above all else, thus elevating testing to the forefront of the curriculum; and an ultimately counterproductive ignorance of children’s developmental need for exploratory play.

These urban charters tend to be run by white women in their twenties whose lived experiences differ sharply from those of their students, who largely come from low-income families of color. Their charter schools feel like reflections of them, of armchair philosophies about what poor kids need, and not the kids themselves. (These schools’ ideas and “best practices” reverberate in the echo chamber of the no-excuses universe, made up of charter networks which seem less distinguishable from each other with each passing year.)

That is, while suburban schools feel like the neighborhoods in which they are situated, these charter schools certainly do not: in the words of one educator I know, they feel like “schools for black kids run by white people,” imposed upon the communities they supposedly serve. And they feel like this, I think, due to all of the reasons listed above, but also in no small part to the parent recruitment process: while parents with means move to the suburbs because they want their children to attend “good schools,” urban parents who can’t afford to move out of the city must choose among a set of dismal options.

In a nutshell, then: suburban parents run toward; urban parents run away. Running toward is empowering; escaping never is.

Politically and financially, affluent suburban parents own their children’s schools. Parents of students at urban charters, however, better not push their luck. (They “won the lottery,” after all.) Suburban parents can question the system all they like; ultimately, they are the system.

Politically and financially, affluent suburban parents own their children’s schools. Parents of students at urban charters, however, better not push their luck. (They “won the lottery,” after all.) Suburban parents can question the system all they like; ultimately, they are the system. Charter parents are certainly not— and by questioning it, they have everything to lose. (The racial undertones of this environment—black parents should be grateful for the education these white educators so generously provide— are significant.) Unlike suburban students who attend district schools, students at urban charter schools can be expelled or pushed out— and no parent wants to be forced back to the district which drove them to enter the charter lottery in the first place.

Urban charters wield this power to ensure compliance from students and parents alike. The strict discipline for which charters are infamous is applied to parents as well as their children. Unlike at suburban schools—where parents are welcomed to join the PTA, to volunteer, to lead projects, and to meet with an administration that must earn their support—parental involvement at many urban charters is as unidirectional as it is punitive. If a student accumulates enough behavioral infractions, for instance, he or she must serve an in-school suspension until the parent is able—on one day’s notice—to take time off of work in the middle of the school day to observe the child in class for an hour and a half. Teachers and administrators threaten students who break the rigid rules of the school with parental involvement: “If your behavior doesn’t get better,” they tell these five- and six- and seven-year-olds, many of whom come from families struggling to make ends meet, “your dad will have to keep missing work to come here. You don’t want him to be fired, do you?” Parents who do not comply are told that the school may not be for them.

Take it or leave it, be grateful, kowtow: we know what’s best for your child.

Ultimately, this serves no one.

Last year, I had a student whose family and pediatrician believed she had a learning disability; I suspected the same. The parent was desperate for a way to help her child; she requested a school evaluation so that the girl could qualify for special education services. Before the meeting, for reasons I still do not fully comprehend, the school determined that the child did not qualify for services. When I expressed discomfort with this decision, I was informed that the staff members who had performed the evaluation— not me, not the pediatrician who had known the child from birth, and certainly not the child’s mother— were somehow the incontrovertible experts on this child and her learning needs. (Furthermore, I was icily informed, because I had questioned the school’s decision, I was no longer welcome at the meeting where this news would be broken to the parent.)

At a suburban school, a parent would have the power to challenge this determination; here, the parent’s only recourse was to remember— as administrators sighed at the end of almost every internal evaluation meeting— that “at least she’s not in public school.”

Perhaps, but that misses the point: charter schools should strive to provide the best education possible, not just one some deem the lesser among evils. Without parental involvement at all levels, however, charters will continue to stagnate in the ways that matter most. The steps for success, then, seem abundantly clear.

This is how wealthy suburban schools succeed: 

1). Put children and parents in the driver’s seat.

This is how urban charter schools would succeed: 

1). Put children and parents in the driver’s seat.


Emily Kaplan is an elementary school teacher living in Boston. She has taught in urban public, urban charter, and suburban public schools. Contact her at emilykaplan@post.harvard.edu.



  1. Some years ago, I heard that my local KIPP school was giving tests to applicants, which KIPP denied. So I put in an application for my daughter, then starting 7th grade, to see if that was accurate. Yes, KIPP contacted us to schedule our test. (We didn’t follow through.)

    Both KIPP enthusiasts and critics will tell you that KIPP also has counseling sessions to ensure that the student and parent are on board with KIPP practices, rules and so forth. Both KIPP enthusiasts and critics will also tell you that those sessions discourage some (how many?) students and families from enrolling — at least those KIPP enthusiasts who aren’t clued in that this isn’t supposed to be publicly discussed will tell you that.

    So, there are a few more steps to be added to the list in this post.

    My contact with a no-excuses charter operator was limited to KIPP because that’s the only one in my community.

    Attrition (students who leave and are not replaced, meaning the class cohort shrinks and shrinks) is another situation for another comment.

    1. Caroline,

      I missed your posting, and am so glad to see you back. Back in the day, you were on fire!

      Check out KIPP’s own internal chart about attrition / retention at KIPP Schools. Actually, this is the publicly available version that includes redactions that were requested by KIPP, a request granted by Arne Duncan’s US DOE:


      Dave & Mike, KIPP’s founders & leaders, are so proud of their charter schools’ attrition/retention rates that they went and blacked them all out of the publicly-available version of this chart — again, with permission and collusion from then-Secretary of Ed. Arne Duncan and the U.S. DOE

      Here’s a very recent article — from the Center for Media & Democracy — where I found this chart:


      Also from this article, here’s some more of what KIPP hides, again, with complicity from the U.S. DOE:

      — “information about its revenues and other significant matters is ‘proprietary’ and should be redacted from materials it provides to that agency to justify the expenditure of federal tax dollars, before its application is made publicly available.”

      — “the statistics about the percentage of its eighth graders who completed high school, entered college, and/or who completed a two-year or four-year degree.”

      — “40 percent of the black males they enroll leave between grades 6 and 8,”

      — “the data about what percentage of KIPP students graduate from high school and go on to college, but (the U.S. DOE) is helping KIPP keep that secret—despite the public tax dollars going to these schools and despite KIPP’s claim to be operating what are public schools”

      — “a chart about how much money would be spent on personnel, facilities, transportation, and “other uses” under the proposed grant. KIPP also sought to redact the amount of private funding it was projecting.”

      — ” ‘regional leadership’ expenses that total nearly $5 million of the projected budget for the grant. There is no indication how much taxpayers are directly or indirectly subsidizing the six-figure salaries of its executive suite including the nearly half-million in total compensation for each of KIPP’s two highest paid employees. (This grant application only pertains to one source of federal and state grants that annually provide revenue to KIPP.) ”

      — “how it spends tax-exempt funding and how many KIPP students make it to high school graduation or college, it also sought to redact information “KIPP Student Attrition” by region and “by subgroup” and “KIPP Student Performance” on state exams on “Math and Reading.”

      … and on it goes.

  2. How much social capital does the author think it takes to earn enough to afford a house in Brookline? (Zillow puts the average home price at $746,400, but I see that some neighborhoods in Brookline have average home prices well over $1,000,000). No doubt affording these homes would be ever so much easier for recent immigrants who barely speak English than finding out about charter schools and their application process.

    It is hard to take this post seriously.

    1. It seems simple enough to infer that Emily is *not* suggesting poor parents move to Brookline; rather, that real solutions in urban charter schools involve empowering parents and children to make decisions rather than having decisions made for them.

      1. Jessica,

        I do think that the real solution in every school is to empower parents and children to make decisions rather than having decisions made for them and that leads me to support parents and children making decisions about which school to attend.

        My concern is with the introduction which contrasts the ease with which a top education can be obtained in an affluent suburb (only 2 steps and a total of a dozen words) compared to the difficulty of obtaining a top education in a Boston charter school ( 5 steps, 228 words).

  3. Emily, it seems you are more disgruntled that your perspective was not taken seriously and that you were not considered the expert, not that “parent perspectives” were not heard. You worked for one year as an associate teacher. Was this your first working experience where you had where you were not immediately seen as an expert? In my experience working with you you spent a great majority of your time sitting in an office complaining rather than helping any child or family. Now you are working in the burbs and writing critically. For what purpose?

    It is hard to take your posts seriously and see what you are trying to do that is of value. You are also an outsider, a white woman with a great degree of economic privilege who invested almost no time or energy into urban education. This most certainly does not make you the voice for urban families of color. I am not the voice for urban families of color either; I am only the voice of one white female teacher who has worked in urban education with families of color for more than 15 years. (And not just in charters as you suggest.)

    I take issue with the way you characterize the school we both work(ed) at, particularly as you are making generalizations about parents of color that I find untrue. I have and continue to teach students whose parents are proactive, thoughtful, and engaged in their children’s education and evaluations. I find it inappropriate that you are making statements about any child or family on a public forum in the manner that you are choosing.

  4. Melinda,

    My point is that parents at the school *are* incredibly proactive, thoughtful, and engaged in their children’s education and evaluations— but the school, as I see it, does not welcome their genuine feedback or see them as partners. I blame the lack of parental power 100% on the *school*, not the parents. I do hope others interpreted the article in the way I intended.

    As for the ad hominem attacks (which I find are generally made when a point has struck a nerve), I’ll just address them briefly to clear up a few factual things:
    •I was a lead teacher, not an associate teacher; I spent time working in the workroom (where you did as well, which is why I saw you there!) when I was shut out of the classroom by my co-teacher, who was an administrator (as you know.) I was doing a LOT behind the scenes, with children and their families, of which you were unaware. (I also continue to have relationships with several of my former students and their families.)
    •Teaching there was not my first time in an urban setting, by any means, and it won’t be my last. (It is on the only time I will teach in a no-excuses environment, though.) You certainly have far more years of teaching experience than I do, though.
    •I do not see myself— at all— as “the voice for urban families of color.” I see myself exactly as you describe me: an outsider, with some sense what it’s like to teach in a variety of vastly different environments. I see my writing as a way to use my perspective to shed light on some things I have observed, not to speak for anyone else.
    *Regarding the “expertise” issue: of course this wasn’t the first time I was not seen as having expertise! What I find upsetting is not that I was not seen as an expert, but that the administration saw themselves— and not students’ families— as incontrovertible experts on the lives of students.

  5. There are so many reasons why charters in Massachusetts rarely establish themselves in suburban communities, but one of them is because parents would never put up with the very narrow curriculum (often hyper-focused on test prep), the discipline model used in most charter schools, and the lack of parent voice in the schools.

    In a Boston Globe article on a report released by the Annenberg Foundation about the makeup of the boards of charters, Dominic Slowey, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Charter School association reveals the bias against allowing parents to have a voice in charter schools. He says, “some schools are opposed to seating parents on their boards because they may have conflicts of interest if their own children attend the schools.” Has this kind of condescension ever been used when referring to parents involved in suburban schools? I think not.

  6. My question to those who tout the virtues of these charter schools is simply this: would you send your child there?

    If the answer is no, then why would you think it’s okay to send other people’s children there?

    The quality of a child’s education should not be based on the ZIP code in which his/her parents can afford to buy or rent a home.

    1. I think you could ask that same question about traditional catchment schools as well. Unfortunately the quality of a child’s education is based on the ZIP code in which his/her parents can afford to buy or rent a home.

    2. Like district schools, charters are not all alike. Parents also have differing desires for where they would send their kids. That being said, I would send my daughters to my charter school in a heartbeat. Emily, I would bet, would not.

      1. Paul, if your daughters wanted to go there, I would certainly send them! ; )

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