COLUMN -- charter schools should be seen as complements, not threatsPosted by Craig Westover | 8:52 AM |
Thursday, March 29, 2007
A scribe writing for the venture-capital asset across the river took recent delight in goring the "sacred cow" of charter schools. The Minnesota Senate's education budget bill, which caps public charter schools at 150 (the current level plus those scheduled to open in the fall), logically makes sense, he wrote. The "experiment" is out of control. With Manichean paranoia he warns:
"The charter-school movement has been hijacked by people driven by ideological beliefs. For too many, charter schools are accomplishing the cherished goal of dismantling the state system of public education."
Casting the charter school cap as a battle between good and evil reveals a visceral, and, I fear, all-too-common attitude. Some policymakers think "public education" is exclusively the state-district run system. Charter schools, private schools, religious schools and home schools are feared as threats rather than befriended as valid and valuable complements to that system.
For some, distrust of charter schools reflects a distrust of private choice, and the notion of marketplace decisions motivating the fast growth of charter schools is uncomfortable. Nonetheless, reasonable people concerned about providing the best education for Minnesota children raise questions about charters that, if given some thought, tend to support encouraging, not discouraging, charter schools.
*Are charter schools handling their finances in a responsible manner?
Some charters have run into financial problems. According to Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren, the Education Department has taken steps to reduce recurrence of the problems. As part of its approval process for charter schools, the department now requires charter school board members and sponsors to attend seminars on school finance. The state's effort is a good step, but the best check on charter schools is the vested interest of parents and teachers who sit on charter school boards.
Charter schools are funded much differently than traditional schools. District funding is determined using a complex formula that yields a deceptively precise "per pupil unit" funding amount. Money flows from the state through the local district to individual schools, which ultimately have little discretionary authority over their budgets. Charter school funding flows from the state to specific schools. Charter school administrators are accountable for how funds are spent. Charter boards have instant and direct access to financial information. Charter budgets and expenses are discrete, transparent and independent of one another. Financial problems, if they exist, are limited to individual schools; they do not indicate a systemic problem.
* Are charter schools producing increased student performance?
Comparisons of student performance among district schools are always couched in caveats about students' social baggage, positive intangibles not measured by test scores, appropriateness of standardized tests and the like. In that context, how do those questioning the performance of charter school students propose to measure it when traditional schools haven't figured that out?
Like all public school students, charter school students take standardized state tests. Results show some charters perform better than others, some better than district schools, some not as well. The more interesting comparison is how might students have fared had they remained in their assigned district schools. Charter enrollment is voluntary, and families seek out charters looking for better performance. Ultimately, a school that meets and exceeds parental expectations is a good measure of how the school is doing at the job of educating children.
That brings us to perhaps the most important questions that might seem to justify a cap on charter schools:
* Are charter schools hurting district schools? Are they doing more harm than good to the overall education system?
Increasing enrollment in charters compared to decreasing enrollment in some district schools, most notably Minneapolis, indicates charters might lure students (and consequently funding) away from district schools. Clearly, that's not good for the affected district schools. But should we be looking at what is best for traditional schools or what is best for kids?
Charter school enrollment is voluntary and increasing. That some charters have waiting lists upward of 100 indicates they are doing something right. If students are migrating from schools that aren't meeting their needs to schools that offer alternatives, why does the Senate want to cap the movement instead of looking at why it is occurring? Is the problem that charter schools are too successful or, perhaps, that the narrowly defined system is not successful enough?
Charter schools create opportunities that a single-system monopoly simply can't offer. Innovation is risky and will not always succeed. Some charters are bound to fail - which is a buyer-beware disclaimer for families considering charter schools. But overall, charter alternatives enhance education in Minnesota. Rather than questioning the motives of those supporting, founding and sending their children to charter schools, Minnesota is better served by acknowledging the value and encouraging the charter school movement.
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