Are Public School Closings a Good Thing?

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Both sides in the debate over school choice will find plenty to argue about in the case of Kansas City, Mo. The K.C. board of education voted Tuesday to close four of its failing public schools — a casualty of the success of charter schools, which have diverted valuable resources from the city's public schools. Since Missouri instituted charter schools in 1999, roughly 4,300 students have enrolled in them, draining an estimated $18 million in state and local funding out of the Kansas City school system, and the district fears that sum could swell to $31 million if newly proposed charters are approved. The system reported $22 million in losses in '99, prompting the closings.

This is believed to be the first time charter schools have been responsible for public school closings. Those in favor of charters say the closings prove that they work — that through competition they weed out underperfoming schools. But opponents of school choice argue that the charters cream off the best students — or at least the ones with the most concerned parents — and have left Kansas City's public school system with fewer schools and a higher concentration of poor students.

"This has been the whole desire of the charter school movement, to introduce competition" says TIME writer-reporter Jodie Morse. "If a school is bad, they cut it." Since 1991, 37 states have passed charter laws, which allow local residents to group together and submit charters, or proposals, complete with school philosophies and curricula, for alternative, publicly funded schools that operate outside the public school system, with few regulatory strings attached. Parents then apply for their children to relocate to the schools, where tuition is free. President Clinton has encouraged the trend, and has called for the creation of 3,000 charter schools by 2000. While there are still fewer than 2,000 of them in the country, the federal government spent $100 million on charter schools in 1999. "So far the reports on the impact of these schools have been positive," notes Morse. "But the fact is you've got to be concerned if public schools start closing, because we still don't know if the quality of education in charter schools is any good. They haven't been around long enough for us to examine changes in standardized test scores compared to those of kids who stay in public school."