Page last updated at 00:08 GMT, Wednesday, 14 April 2010 01:08 UK

Charter schools: Parents protest

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent, Gloucester, Massachusetts

Christopher Farmer
Charter schools will mean bigger classes elsewhere, says school superintendent

Charter schools have been praised for injecting new energy into inner-cities in the United States. But it's not a one-sided story. There are also parents who see them as a threat to local education.

Gloucester is a town about 40 miles outside Boston. A fishing port with white clapboard buildings, it's a world away from the inner city.

But there is rebellion in the air here. Parents are unhappy at proposals for a charter school to be opened.

Parent in Gloucester
Jason Grow says the new school will undermine existing schools

Setting up another rival school will mean taking away money and pupils from the local school system, they argue.

They're angry at what they say will be the disruption of their local schools for the sake of what they see as a political gimmick.

While charter schools have a strong emotional appeal in the inner city, in this small Massachusetts town there is hard-headed opposition.

"When you look at the funding, they're going to be draining away resources to fund this other school," says parent, Jason Grow.

"You're impacting the education of 3,000 pupils for the potential benefit - and there's no guarantee of benefit - of 240 pupils."

And he rejects the idea that this offers extra choice.

"I don't really see what the 'choice' is about - you already have choices now. We have really good schools here now. What you're doing is jeopardising those schools for something that is unproven."

'Abdicating responsibility'

Rather than offering more choice, he says it's a case of politicians passing the buck on school standards.

MATCH school building

"Politicians are abdicating their responsibility with charters. They're throwing their hands up and saying we can't solve the problems - so we're going to give it to you to try. We don't really care what you do as long as you get it off our hands for a while."

There are also fears that introducing a "parallel school system" will be socially divisive.

"It's a way of driving wedges into the community," says another campaigner, Joe Rosa. He is also concerned that his area is being caught up in the wider national political push for charter schools.

"Political issues can overwhelm common sense," he warns.

The most direct concern over the charter school proposal is that it will financially damage other schools.

The new school will take the per pupil funding from pupils who switch - but the parents argue that the remaining state schools will still have many of the same running costs, despite the reduced income.

"My concern is that the school district is already strapped financially - and to try and experiment for a very small fraction of the kids, it seems a lot of risk for not much benefit," said Kathy Clancy, who is on the town's school committee.

"I don't think it's a fair use of public money. As taxpayers we don't feel we have a voice in this. There will be a loss of accountability."

She also raises concerns that if charter schools fail, the state school system still has to be there to pick up the pieces.

Bigger class sizes

The head of the local school system - the school superintendent - is also deeply worried about the impact of introducing charter schools.

Kathy Clancy
"Not a fair use of public money," says Kathy Clancy

Christopher Farmer, originally from Yorkshire, says the protestors are "not opposed to innovation or school choice".

But he says there is a very practical question about the financial consequences.

"We will lose the full value of the students, but can only make marginal savings," he says.

And he is unambiguous about the consequences of having to stretch his budget.

"I see very much larger class sizes to release the funds for the charter schools," he says.

Mr Farmer describes the parents' protests against the charter school as a "quiet, thoughtful, very impressive piece of community action."

And he sees the emergence of charter schools as a political diversion.

"Because of the nature of politics, politicians are looking for a quick fix - and the quick fix tends to be organisational, rather than looking at long term investment," he says.

He describes charter schools as a "distraction, I'm not sure there is any evidence that they raise standards. They distract us away from the real issues, which is about what happens in the classroom".

With the idea of charter schools being canvassed in England - he gives his own advice. "Tread carefully."

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