First, let me say right up front that I celebrate any school that provides a child a first class education. I do not care whether it is a magnet school, traditional public school, charter school, or private school. I do not believe that public funds should be used for private schools, but I do believe that every child should have access to a great public school.
This year has been the worst year I have ever witnessed for attacks on public schools. Politicians and reformers who believe they are helping children by providing vouchers, tax credits, closing public schools, or lifting caps on charter schools are missing the big picture. In an effort to help a few children, they are doing great harm to most children, and they are undermining the keystone of our country’s democracy.
I know that charter schools are public schools, but I would contend that we are at a point in their development where they have become enablers in weakening a strong public school system for America. The purpose of charter schools was to create laboratories for developing innovative instructional programs that improved student learning. Now, too many charters have become segregated, personality-driven, and ineffective in preparing all students for the world that faces them. Some need to be closed for academic malpractice. Meanwhile, they undermine the financial stability of the public school system.
Yet, there are some charter schools that provide a fantastic education for students, and they have the results to prove it. The successful schools have used their flexibility well with greater parent involvement, extended learning, highly paid and respected teachers, innovative collective bargaining agreements, wrap-around services, wealthy benefactors, smaller class sizes, and a laser-focus on student achievement that literally saves lives. I don’t want to lose any of that.
I have thought a lot about this, and I believe there is a win-win path. Let’s bring charter schools back under the umbrella of local public school systems. Charter schools can enter into contracts with their local boards of education or district chancellors to maintain their independence as long as students are learning. As long as they can show student success, they can have their own governance/board of directors and special status with any union contract that allows their faculty to seek waivers from provisions that hamper them from doing their best. Successful charters can have access to services like transportation, facilities, student services, food services, and health services as long as those services are cost efficient for the taxpayer. They can be a part of the school community to share ideas, resources, and public support. In other words, charters and other public schools can become collaborative rather than competitive. Collaboration is one of the major attributes of the highest performing countries in the world.
Local boards of education must be flexible, creative, and supportive while inviting charter schools to become a part of their system. In the 21st century, one size does not fit all. In a nation where Colgate successfully sells seven different types of its brand of toothpaste, you know our citizens want choice. Parents want to choose the school that best fits their children. Let’s not stifle this customization, but embrace it. Local boards and their unions must take the first step. Start the conversation. Look at models like Denver’s innovation school policy. Remember that a good public school system for all our country’s children is more important than our individual turf.
America can once again have the best public school system in the world. All we have to do is stop the fragmentation and welcome charter schools back into the community and the conversation. The bottom line for every school, charter or other, should be student learning.
The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.