A screenshot of a promotional dinner for two at MacArthur's advertised on Moving Everest Charter School's Twitter account.

If given a choice between a chicken dinner and a quality school, how many parents would choose the chicken dinner? I can’t imagine this is what charter school advocates mean when they talk about ‘school choice’. Yet in a what some are calling an insulting ploy, Moving Everest Charter School in the Austin community is using these so-called “promotional perks” to lure students to enroll in their school for the upcoming school year.

Using gimmicks to attract students to a school is nothing new. In fact, many schools do it all the time in order to distinguish themselves for the characteristics that make that school special. The nearby public neighborhood school Spencer Academy is known for its technology-driven curriculum where perks like iPads and access to the latest technological software and programs can lure some parents to enroll their children.

However, a chicken dinner is no iPad and tickets to a getaway vacation at Key Lime Cove have no intrinsic educational value-added for students who enroll in the school. The deeper issue at play here is what happens when a city has created a cannibalistic education system where public neighborhood schools and charter schools desperately claw for students to which dollar signs are attached, particularly under the student-based budgeting (SBB) model — in which funding follows the student. In (SBB), principals receive a particular amount of funding based, in large part, on enrollment levels. This dynamic makes high enrollment a critical necessity.

The tension is even more pronounced when one considers the fact that 50 public neighborhood schools were closed for ‘underutilization’. Yet, in many of those same communities, charter schools are opening up shop — in some cases inside the very buildings that formerly housed neighborhood schools! Moreover, the latest CPS budget reveals that neighborhood schools will sustain a net $59.6 million cut, mostly because of reduced enrollment; while charter and contract schools will get $31 million more, due to enrollment.

Starving neighborhood schools are left scrounging for scraps; while, in the name of ‘choice’ charter schools like Moving Everest — many of which have not been proven to perform any better than neighborhood schools — use lowest common denominator gimmicks to secure precious funding, err, students.

It’s a rancorous process that pits schools against each other and creates a climate of tension in communities where charter schools and public schools must coexist. Ultimately, the quality of educational experience and student learning should be at the center of everyone’s concern; whether that child is in a public neighborhood school, charter school, or private school. However, the city’s unwillingness to adhere to its first priority — making sure that public neighborhood schools are fully funded and resourced to deliver the highest educational experience to our children — means that school enrollment has boiled down to who’s offering the best chicken dinner.

I suppose the next question to ask is, ‘Which parents are buying into the gimmick?’

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