Ghost in suburban charter schools war?

Now here is a totally fascinating New York Times story about charter schools. I am not sure whether or not it has a hidden religion angle in it and, as always, this is my point. If this story was set in an elite community in the Bible belt, I think that the reporters would assume that religion is lurking somewhere and they would do so with good cause. It is rare, in the red zip codes of this land of ours for citizens to have emotional debates about their public schools without issues of religion, morality and culture getting into the mix.

That does not seem to be the case here.

Nevertheless, I wonder. Here is how the story opens:

MILLBURN, N.J. -- Matthew Stewart believes there is a place for charter schools. Just not in his schoolyard.

Mr. Stewart, a stay-at-home father of three boys, moved to this wealthy township, about 20 miles from Midtown Manhattan, three years ago, filling his life with class activities and soccer practices. But in recent months, he has traded play dates for protests, enlisting more than 200 families in a campaign to block two Mandarin-immersion charter schools from opening in the area.

The group, Millburn Parents Against Charter Schools, argues that the schools would siphon money from its children’s education for unnecessarily specialized programs. The schools, to be based in nearby Maplewood and Livingston, would draw students and resources from Millburn and other area districts.

“I’m in favor of a quality education for everyone,” Mr. Stewart said. “In suburban areas like Millburn, there’s no evidence whatsoever that the local school district is not doing its job. So what’s the rationale for a charter school?”

Suburbs like Millburn, renowned for educational excellence, have become hotbeds in the nation’s charter school battles, raising fundamental questions about the goals of a movement that began 20 years ago in Minnesota.

Charter schools, we are told, are "publicly financed but independently operated," and you usually find them in places in which public schools are shown to be radically underperforming. Of course, you also have conservative taxpayers turning in this direction when they are upset with schools on other things, often linked to moral issues, culture, etc. In other words, "family" issues and religion.

In this case, the battles are over schools that would immerse students in studying, as part of all classroom work, the Mandarin language.

But stop and think about this: Would the existence of only two charter schools in this area truly represent a threat to the quality of the public schools? Just two schools? Or, in fact, does this movement represent the opening up another flank in ongoing battles over education?

In other words, to what degree have Catholics, Lutherans, Christian Reformed believers, miscellaneous evangelicals and others already left the public schools to form their own systems -- for reasons of faith and doctrine? Then, if people began withdrawing for reasons of quality and culture, there might be a deeper threat to the public system.

In other words, is there a hole in this story, one that might take a whole paragraph to fill?

In other words, are rich schools always "good" schools in every sense of the word? That's a question that different parents are going to answer in different ways, depending on their own values. This brings us back, of course, to money.

Millburn’s superintendent, James Crisfield, said he was caught off guard by the plan for charters because “most of us thought of it as another idea to help students in districts where achievement is not what it should be.” He said the district could lose $270,000 -- or $13,500 for each of 20 charter students -- and that would most likely increase as the schools added a grade each year.

“We don’t have enough money to run the schools as it is,” Mr. Crisfield said, adding that the district eliminated 18 positions and reduced bus services this year.

Millburn offers Mandarin only in high school, fueling the arguments of those seeking the new charters. “Kids are like sponges,” said Yanbin Ma, a Hanyu founder. “There are so many things they can absorb and become good at, and I feel that our public schools haven’t done enough to take advantage of that.”

But to Mr. Stewart, a leader in a growing opposition that includes Livingston mothers who have helped collect more than 800 petition signatures, this sounds “selfish.”

“Public education is basically a social contract -- we all pool our money, so I don’t think I should be able to custom-design it to my needs,” he said, noting that he pays $15,000 a year in property taxes. “With these charter schools, people are trying to say, ‘I want a custom-tailored education for my children, and I want you, as my neighbor, to pay for it.’ ”

Of course, traditional religious believers already help fund public schools that many -- not all -- believe attack the core values of their homes. Many have left, leaving their tax dollars behind, but taking with them their children and, thus, numbers that help determine the funding of local schools.

It's a familiar war, one with articulate and essential voices on both sides. I simply wonder if this charter-schools war story can be told with zero references to the other battles that surround this drama and, frankly, have influenced it.

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