Competition or Complement?

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Private education should help the charter movement meet common goals.

It's 7:30 a.m., and almost all of the 60 9th graders enrolled in the first class of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy in Washington are at school--30 minutes before classes begin.

Their early arrival suggests that the charter school movement may be very unlike the countless other school reform efforts of the past two decades.

Enabling legislation in 33 states now makes it possible for public schools to operate independent of the myriad restrictions that regulate curriculum, teacher credentials, and academic standards. Over 1,100 charter schools will enroll almost a quarter of a million students this year, with new schools opening daily and others being planned. Some are created by groups of parents and/or teachers, some by entrepreneurs for profit, and others are existing public schools that have changed to charter status. Although the enabling legislation varies from state to state, most charter schools have similar characteristics: They offer supportive and safe environments, significant academic standards, low student-teacher ratios, and high expectations for parent involvement.

Sound familiar?

Commonly referred to as independent public schools, charter schools might more accurately be called public independent schools. Rather than a hybridized form of public education, they are independent schools operating in the public domain and supported by public funds. They are governed by boards of trustees, their teachers need not have teaching credentials (in the majority of states), and those with a 501(c)(3) status are eligible to receive tax-deductible gifts.

Sound even more familiar?

What impact might this movement have on nonpublic independent schools? In some parts of the country, charter schools are already in direct competition for students and donor dollars with established "private" schools. Most charter schools, however, are located in inner cities, serving a population largely unreached by even the most ambitious independent school admissions efforts. Nevertheless, it probably won't be long before charter schools appear in the suburban communities traditionally home to independent schools. In fact, a charter school has already opened in Princeton, N.J.

The charter school movement is in its infancy. Some of its schools will not survive their early childhood, and some may struggle to achieve respectability within their communities, never reaching their full potential. However, the fervor that fuels this movement, the clarity of its goals, and its organizational parallels with independent education convince me that charter schools are here to stay, in one form or another. Therefore, I believe our independent school community needs to learn about charter schools and be in dialogue with them. It is an excellent opportunity to create a shared future that serves all children, echoing the mission statement of the National Association of Independent Schools, which is committed to work "for the benefit of all children."

I currently serve on the board of a charter school, but that is only one way independent school educators might be involved with the charter school movement. School-to-school partnerships could be mutually rewarding, particularly as they bring people together who have had little dialogue to date with one another. I could imagine student exchanges, faculty dialogues, even a joint trustee meeting to discuss common challenges and concerns. The operative word at this point is "relationship," not "membership"--creating links between two forms of educational organization that share a common purpose, the education of children.

We will usher in the new millennium with more than one social ill yet uncured, but none has more import for the next century than our continuing failure to properly provide for the educational needs of children--all children.

Quality education, rather than being the occasional product of a government monopoly, or a discretionary option for those who can pay tuition, needs to be available to all. Its creation requires that it transcend the partisan politics and false dichotomy of public vs. private. Charter schools are a step forward in the quest for quality education--on a path already traveled by independent schools. We should welcome them to the journey.

Jeff Moredock is the head of Barrie School in Silver Spring, Md. He is a trustee of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy in Washington and the vice chairman of Teach For America's community advisory board.

Vol. 18, Issue 16, Page 34

Published in Print: December 16, 1998, as Competition or Complement?
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