All Parents Like School Choice, For Their Own Children

I haven’t had the opportunity as of yet to meet a parent who would would prefer to not have school options available for their children. To be clear, I run into parents in Kentucky and across the nation regularly who argue, fight against, and curse charter schools and the expansion of other school choice policy measures, but these parents are fighting to stop the expansion of school choice for other people’s children, not their own. Even the most die-hard charter school opponent will usually tell me, without recognizing the irony, how he or she carefully selected a neighborhood, used social and political connections, negotiated as part of an employment contract, or pay tuition at a private school in order to choose the best schools for their children. And what is implied in our conversation is that they believe their middle class and/or professional status qualifies them to be able to exercise school choice.

I don’t know of an American parent who doesn’t want at least a few school options available to their kids, and you likely don’t know one either. So why are charter schools and school choice so controversial if everyone wants it for their own kids? Simple. Some of us continue to put adults and adult organizations above the needs and best interests of children.

Opposition to charter schools and school choice is usually about adults: adults’ jobs and job security; enrollment and financial stability of traditional public school districts; teachers unions and their membership rolls, dues, and collective bargaining agreements; etc. That’s the stuff that makes charter schools and school choice controversial: stability, security, and power for adults and adult organizations.

So what if traditional public school districts can’t keep up with parent and student demand for increased specialization in academic, arts, and career pathways as evidenced by ridiculously long waiting lists at the limited number of programs offered… So what if traditional public school districts have proven to be ill-equipped to meet the diverse needs of learners… So what if the instructional approach used at a particular school is simply not appropriate for engaging and/or meeting the academic needs of a whole population of students… So what if less than a quarter of the kids in a school district who qualify for free or reduced price meals meet the mark of being proficient or distinguished on state standardized examinations in reading and mathematics… That’s just how the cookie crumbles, right? Teachers unions have to fill membership rolls and collect dues. School districts can’t take the chance of parents opting to send their kids to a non-district run public school because the district is counting on the dollars the state sends for their kid (whether the district serves the kid well or not). So no, we can’t afford to deal with this school choice nonsense because the adult business of school is not set up for parents to be able to choose.

It turns out it’s not ‘all about kids’ after all, is it?

Accountability and Choice are Central to Improving Education Outcomes in Kentucky

Since the early 1990s Kentucky has continued to make strides in education reform. The state of education in the Commonwealth in 2017 is completely different from what it was 25 years ago. No longer is Kentucky at the very bottom of academic performance rankings of the states. By most accounts, Kentucky now sits ahead of 15 or more states in academic performance. That is progress to be proud of.

But even with that progress , significant educational challenges remain for Kentucky. Even with the strides we have made, very large percentages of students across the Commonwealth continue to make little or no academic gains . Children who qualify for free or reduced price meals, students of color, and students of disabilities continue to be shortchanged in many of our state’s public school districts. In fact in many instances, the gaps between the performance of low-income students and their middle income peers is increasing. While the performance of middle income students is accelerating in some Kentucky school districts, the performance of low-income students moves very little. While Kentucky’s school districts seem to have figured out what works for improving learning for some students, other students continue to fall through the cracks. What makes that very sad reality even sadder is knowing that it doesn’t have to be that way.

First and foremost, Kentucky’s public schools and school districts must be held accountable for the learning of each and every student they serve. There may be no more important task facing the Kentucky Board of Education in the next ten years than the current work of redesigning our school accountability system. Schools and professionals will do what we hold them accountable for; and it’s time for Kentucky to have an accountability system that holds schools accountable in very clear ways for improving the performance of low-income children and children of color. If a public school takes the public dollars allocated for the education a child, be they rich, poor, disabled, blue, red, or purple, that school must be held accountable for providing that child with the opportunity to realize his or her God given academic potential. If a school is unwilling or unable to meet a child’s academic needs, that school has no right to the public dollars appropriated for the education of that child.

Second, as many of our traditional public schools have shown themselves to be unwilling or unable to meet the needs of our most vulnerable students, we must create public school options alongside district-run schools that are willing and able to meet those students’ needs. Over the last 25 years, public charter schools, with convincing results, have shown themselves to be an effective tool for meeting the academic needs of some of the very children Kentucky’s traditional public schools have struggled with most. With that understanding, it is only logical that state lawmakers would provide a pathway for giving the parents of those children additional public school options. Hopefully that pathway will be in statute by the end of the 2017 legislative session.

Kentucky’s traditional public schools need real help with meeting  the learning needs of specific populations of students. The reality of our current system is arguably only a hair short of being criminally negligent. Traditional public schools take the public dollars allocated for the education of low income children, often lacking the intent or ability to truly meet those children’s needs. Too many of our traditional public schools have refused to create school options or use alternative approaches within their districts that would meet the learning needs of low income kids. And along with that refusal, many leaders of those districts fight as hard as they can to prevent the creation of public school options alongside district-run schools because such options, namely public charter schools, jeopardize the tax dollars they now enjoy flowing into their school districts for low income children.

Time is up for traditional public school districts taking low income children and the tax dollars that come with them for granted. Kentucky’s school accountability system must hold all public schools accountable for the learning of each and every student they take tax dollars for; and we must provide additional public school options for parents, especially low income parents. Not only is doing so a moral and ethical imperative, but it’s in economic interest of the Commonwealth.

Charter Schools Are Public Schools, Period.

The Kentucky Education Association (KEA) has launched a wide ranging media campaign voicing the organization’s support of public schools. What is not explicitly stated but is implied through their messaging is a limited conceptualization of what public schools are. What I believe the organization would like to say is that it supports schools operated by traditional public school districts. If the organization’s stance was truly what the words of its campaign says, it would be supportive of efforts to expand the public school options available to parents in Kentucky through the passage of public charter school legislation. Unfortunately, however, KEA has been a barrier to the expansion of public school options for parents in Kentucky.

To be clear, charter schools are public schools in every way. There are a few criterion that make schools public: (1) They are open to public; (2) they do not charge students tuition; (3) they are publicly funded; (4) there is public accountability. That’s it. Schools don’t have to be operated by traditional public school districts to be public. Schools can contract with and purchase goods and services from both nonprofit and for-profit organizations and still be public (many traditional public schools and school districts do so now). These additional conditions that charter school opponents want to impose on charter schools to support their false claims that charter schools are not public schools are wholly inappropriate. In fact, if any conditions other than the ones I have provided here are required for schools to be considered public, many schools operated by traditional public school districts in Kentucky and across the U.S. could not be considered public schools.

In sum, charter schools are in fact public schools in every sense of the word, period. As such, those who say they love and support public schools should be supportive of efforts to expand the high quality public school options available to parents in Kentucky.

 

Public Charter Schools Consideration in Kentucky: 2017 Legislative Session

As the Kentucky General Assembly enters serious consideration of a charter school bill in the 2017 legislative session, I have taken some time to reflect a bit on the charter school movement across the United States and in Kentucky. With the first charter school law passed in Minnesota now more than 25 years ago, charter schools are now  a permanent fixture in the public education firmament. And while there has been pretty significant variation across the states in the details of charter school laws and some variation in the academic performance of charter schools, very few individuals or groups now regard the additional public school options created by charter school legislation as being anything but positive.

Public charter schools, as schools of choice, provide parents with additional public school options to choose from. It’s really that simple. While teachers unions and some traditional civil rights organizations like the NAACP continue to paint charter schools as something they are not, the demand for public charter schools has never been greater, as evidenced by their continually expanding waiting lists all over the country. When you get down to the truth of this debate, regardless of whether you’re a parent, a teacher, a student, or a concerned community member, there is absolutely no reason to reasonably object to charter schools coming to Kentucky.

First and foremost, charter schools are schools to which parents choose to send their children. Children are neither assigned nor required to attend charter schools. As charter schools provide parents with additional school options, these new or converted schools provide parents with an additional public school choice. Parents who are uninterested in charter schools overall or in any particular charter school simply enroll their kids elsewhere.

Second, our ever-changing economy and demands of the workforce mean education and training must become more specialized than ever before. Charter school legislation allows for the creation of additional public schools capable of providing that needed degree of specialization. And because these are schools of choice, parents are able to choose among the various schools and programs provided both in traditional public school districts and in public charter schools.

Third, if charter schools don’t perform, there is a mechanism built into charter school laws that allows states to close them down. Much different than some traditional public schools and school districts that have been permitted to under-serve children, families, and communities for generations, charters are granted for specific periods of time; and if charter schools fail to meet the performance standards articulated in the charter contract, charter authorizers are called upon to not renew or revoke charter contracts. Those of us who are advocates for high quality public charter schools have no interest in creating additional public schools that will not serve children well. Frankly, Kentucky has too many of those schools already.

Finally, it’s no secret that Kentucky’s traditional public school districts and schools have struggled mightily to improve the academic performance of traditionally underperforming students, including children from low-income families, students of color, and students with disabilities. In fact in some Kentucky school districts, rather than closing achievement gaps, gaps are actually widening. School struggles raising students’ performance is in large part the result to the dominant one-size-fits-all/mass production model of public education. With such a model, students that don’t have typical academic needs and professional aspirations usually end up under-served by a system that caters to the typical student. The problem is very few of our students are typical in terms of their academic needs or career aspirations, so providing more specialized approaches for reaching and serving students should be at the top of our list of education priorities. Research and experience have shown us that public charter schools have been incredibly effective with the very populations of students traditional public schools have struggled to engage most, and that charter boards and operators have used the flexibility provided through charter laws to create schools that deliver the very specialized instruction our increasingly diverse population of students need to be prepared for success in the workplace and in postsecondary education and training programs.

Kentucky parents should be pleased that after years of charter school legislation being stalled in the legislature for political reasons, the passage of a law that will all charter schools to be established in the Commonwealth seems imminent. If the Kentucky General Assembly does in fact pass a charter school law during the 2017 legislative session, it will be first and foremost a victory for Kentucky’s students and parents. A new tool will have been added to the tool belts of state and local education leaders for addressing the Commonwealth’s continuing challenges in education and workforce development.