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Why I support charter schools

Kentucky Charter ScoholsEarlier this week I was tremendously honored to be named to the board of directors for the Kentucky Charter Schools Association.  It was exciting to join such a diverse and distinguished team of educators and community leaders dedicated to promoting school choice and improved student learning, and I will do my best to make a meaningful contribution to this important work.

As a career educator, I know my support of school choice and charter schools in particular puts me at odds with many of my P-12 and higher education colleagues.  But I am convinced that if more Kentuckians - especially those who work in education - really hear the message of school choice and how charter schools work they will recognize this as an innovation that Kentucky needs and that Kentucky families deserve.

Charter schools are public schools of choice.  Parents choose to send their children to charter schools.  The state education funds that would normally go to the school district where that student is assigned follow the student to their charter school. 

Charter schools are typically required to meet all of the same state testing requirements as traditional public schools, and may not discriminate in their enrollment policies (in some states, lottery systems are used so all families who want to attend a given charter school have an equal shot at enrollment; few things are more inspiring and heart-breaking than watching the hopeful anticipation of parents and students as they wait to find out if they were selected for their school of choice).  Beyond these rules, which ensure a level playing field with traditional public schools, charter schools are typically free to operate without any additional interference by the government.  They may innovate curriculum, teaching methods, school schedule, staffing arrangements, and governance policies as they see fit.

For this autonomy, charter schools also face the ultimate form of accountability.  If charter schools fail to satisfy their client families, those families will move elsewhere.  And if they fail to produce high levels of student performance, they can be shut down.  (For more on how charter schools offer a powerful mix of autonomy and accountability, see my Lexington Herald-Leader commentary on this topic).

Kentucky is currently one of only eight states that still prohibit charter schools.  This, despite the Commonwealth's history of being a national leader in education reform efforts.  It's time to change that, and I'm hopeful that, with the leadership of the Kentucky Charter Schools Association and courageous members in the Kentucky General Assembly like Representative Brad Montell of Shelbyville and Senator Mike Wilson of Bowling Green, our next legislative session will see some progress in the adoption of a meaningful charter school bill.

Choice opponents promote many myths about charter schools that are not based on solid evidence, and often contradict themselves.  They will tell you that charter schools succeed because they run off students who have discipline problems or disabilities and enroll a disproportionate number of affluent white students, but research suggests that this isn't the case.  Choice opponents will then, in contradiction of the last point, say that we don't need charter schools because they are no more successful than traditional public schools in terms of student achievement. 

The research on charter school performance is mixed, though high-quality studies (there aren't enough of these) show that most charter schools do about as well as, or better than, their traditional public school counterparts.  The truth is that, like all schools, some charter schools will be great successes and some will be abject failures.  The difference is that a failing charter school can be shut down, whereas a failing traditional public school can continue to drain taxpayer dollars indefinitely.

Choice opponents also argue that charter schools "drain money" from traditional public schools that most need additional funding.  This argument is based on a mistaken notion of where public school dollars come from and who is in the best position to decide how they are spent, and rests on thoroughly discredited idea that all schools need to improve is more money (I tackle this argument in depth here).

Finally, choice opponents in Kentucky will argue that we don't need charter schools because state law allows traditional public school districts to apply for "district of innovation" status that gives them charter-like autonomy.  But as I also argued in the Lexington Herald-Leader, while the districts of innovation law is a good thing, it is not an adequate substitute for charter schools because it denies families a choice in where they obtain their educational services (see more on this here).

And this is ultimately the argument that wins my heart for charter schools and choice.  Families deserve educational options.  Education is a public good, but why do we assume that a state monopoly that says your child must go to this school is the best way to deliver on that public good?

This has become a deeply personal question for my family.  My oldest child will enter kindergarten in less than two years, and my wife and I are wrestling with the decision about where to send her.  We have several excellent options, each of which has inevitable strengths and weaknesses.  The trick is figuring out which choice best reflects our daughter's individual needs, and meets both our values as a family and our aspirations for her future.  This makes it a challenging, and deeply personal decision.

The miracle is that we have a decision to make.  Because of our affluence, we have the option of buying a home in a community that has great educational options, and the means of affording them.  But most families don't, and so they are stuck with the school the state has chosen for them, regardless of their child's needs, their values, or their aspirations.  Many families poorer than my own pay a disproportionately larger share of tax dollars for education, and often receive much lower quality services.

And that is fundamentally unjust.  Every child deserves the kind of educational options my family enjoys - and we long for even more choices.

It is time to rethink the way we deliver our promise of a quality education for all students.  High-quality traditional public schools have nothing to fear.  And our children have everything to gain.

Let's make 2014 the year of charter schools in Kentucky.


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