I   have expressed many times over the years my reluctance to jump on the charter school bandwagon even though I recognize the shortcomings of public schools and the possibility the only cure for those shortcomings might be free-market competition.

But the way the charter school phenomenon has gone the last 10 years or so, I can't help but think competition has become less the motivation for supporters than has a desire to provide parental choice in the selection of a school for their children.

Twenty-five years ago, parents had almost no say about what decisions were made for their child in public schools, then all of a sudden they were heady with the power given to them to make education choices for their children

So naturally, charter schools are going to be appealing.

Especially since parents know they're not going to be asked to pay a dime for sending their child to a charter school. Why? Because taxpayers are paying top dollar for it through the public school district's checking account.

What's not to like about a deal like that?

Except for one thing. Charter schools haven't truly provided a better academic setting for the education of our children. Or if they are better, in a few cases, they're only marginally so.

So I'm thinking charter schools aren't nearly what they've been cracked up to be. Their only reason to exist, in my mind, is to better educate our children. If they're not doing that, what legitimate purpose do they serve?

And as I watch the York City School District slowly, but surely, sink into the quicksand of financial devastation, in large part because of the money it has to forward to the five charter schools serving city students, I've become more and more disenchanted with charter schools.

In theory, they could serve a purpose.

In reality, they don't serve much of a purpose at all.

But then I read a story in The York Dispatch on Tuesday, about the Helen Thackston Charter School, located on the corner of East Philadelphia Street and Ridge Avenue. It's just about finished with an expansion program that's added room for about 50 percent more students -- 500 students to 775 students -- in grades 5 through 11.

And everyone is raving about how wonderful it is -- particularly the additional space that creates a library learning center, a cafeteria/gym, restrooms and water fountains on every floor, an elevator connecting all three floors and additional classrooms.

One student said, "It feels a lot better," while noting that the old school wasn't as spacious or as clean.

I have no doubt that's true.

Need I remind anyone, however, that the schools these students previously went to -- all of them in York City -- all had libraries, all had cafeterias, all had gyms, all had restrooms, all had water fountains and all had plenty of classrooms.

Taxpayers had already paid for all of that once. Now they're paying for it again, this time to the tune of $11 million.

Meanwhile, we've got school buildings throughout York City -- again, all paid for by city taxpayers at a pretty penny -- sitting empty because there weren't enough students to fill them. Why? Because so many of those students left city schools and headed out for the greener pastures of charter schools.

How much greener, I remain to be convinced.

Still, I find myself somewhat connected to the Thackston Charter School in a way I don't feel connected to any of the other charter schools. I find myself rooting for its success.

And that's because I once went there as a student. No, not in 1906, when it first opened. I'm old, but not nearly that old. But in 1953, when the school was known as the Ridge Avenue Elementary School, I attended as a kindergarten student.

My family lived on East Philadelphia Street at the time, about two blocks down from the school. And for one year, I went to school there. I took my kindergarten naps there. I became school socialized there. I might even have learned my ABCs and counting from one to 100 there.

I have a connection there like I don't have with any other school in the city.

And here we are 60 years later, and the good old school is still standing -- a miracle -- and still serving a useful purpose -- another miracle.

I'm pleased with that.

Yet I know none of that would probably be the case if it weren't that the Thackston Charter School people took it over and made something positive out of it.

Are the students getting a better education at Thackston than they would in the city elementary school located a couple of blocks northwest, as the crow flies -- the Alexander D. Goode Elementary School on North Broad Street? I doubt it.

In fact, I'm pretty sure they're not.

But it's there. It's like an old friend doing well. I'm pleased that's the case.

So I'm wishing it well.

And I'm wishing the kids well, too.

Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: lhick s@yorkdispatch.com.