H-L's Merlene Davis recently tackled the charter schools issue and concluded...we have to hurry up and do something. But she's still not sure what.
"For me, the status quo is not an option. I'm going back and forth between charter schools and Silberman's turnaround model. "We know one thing," Silberman said. "We can't wait any longer." Surely we all feel the urgency in those words."I don't mean this to sound overly critical of Davis, whose job it is to have an opinion. Her conclusion matches most opinions I hear. Folks are just not sure charters, in and of themselves, provide the solution people are hoping for. My own support for very limited and tightly controlled charters is so weak that if Kentucky once again rejects charters, I'm OK with it. But the feeling that we must do "something" keeps the issue alive; that along with a strong belief in choices - even bad ones - which Americans have come to embrace.
Charter schools and what they might mean for Kentucky
After successfully avoiding the debate on charter schools for many years, I've decided it is time to find out what all the fuss is about.
This week I spoke with Wayne D. Lewis, board chairman of the Kentucky Charter Schools Association, author, and former school teacher who is now an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky.
I know Lewis and his wife, but neither of them has allowed me near their newborn daughter, so I don't know how much of a friend I am.
I chose to speak with Lewis, a proponent, first, because the legislature is once again looking at the possibilities of allowing some form of charter schools to be set up in Kentucky. We are only one of eight states that hasn't gone down that road. Charters would be a change from the status quo that we are familiar with.
With the help of Lewis and "Exploring Charter Schools in Kentucky: An Informational Guide," published by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence in November, let me try to define charter schools.
A charter school is a public school, funded by taxpayers, and independently operated by a group of teachers, parents, non-profit organizations, or businesses that is contractually obligated to meet student achievement goals. The difference between them and what we have now is that charter schools are allowed more freedom to be innovative. Charter schools have control of their staffing, curriculum and budgets. The amount of freedom varies from state to state.
No tuition is charged and there are no special entrance requirements. The only restriction might be a waiting list or admissions lottery if the school proves successful, Lewis said.
OK. That is what charter schools are. Why do we need them?
"I believe that parents in Kentucky want additional public school options," Lewis said. "I have never talked with a parent yet who told me, 'I don't want additional options for my kids.' Who would say that?"
A charter school could fill the need for a curriculum option that fits a child's special learning needs or aspirations, Lewis explained. Some charters specialize in technology, some in the arts, some in teaching at-risk children. Some have extended hours, and some develop special themes.
A charter school is not necessarily a successful learning institution. The 2013 National Charter School Study from the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes indicates charters tend to benefit economically disadvantaged students more than those not living in poverty. Special education students improved in math, but not in reading; and white students overall showed a significant loss of performance.
Seemingly, that indicates charter schools could close the achievement gap for poor and minorities students.
"There is no magic," Lewis said. "If anyone says there is, they are full of themselves."
But the assumption is with greater autonomy and governance structure, students in some schools could show improvement. And with the added freedom to be flexible, the schools should have no excuse to fail students.
If a charter school does not hold up its end of the bargain, does not show improved academic achievement after a set period of time, it should be closed, Lewis said.
That should be mandatory.
"A traditional public school can fail until the cows come home and no one will shut it down," he said.
Charter school parents could remove their child at will because it is the parent who chooses the school and not vice versa. Accordingly, high standards should be in place for those seeking to open a charter school, he said. Many should be denied. And there has to be adequate monitoring to ensure quality.
Wayne D. Lewis
That sounds like a win-win.
So why is there such great opposition to charter schools?
Lewis said it comes down to politics and money. In Kentucky, Democrats, who are the majority party in the state House of Representatives, oppose the charter school concept. Republicans, who are the majority in the state Senate, support it. Legislation allowing charter schools has been approved in the Senate, but blocked in the House education committee.
Some think charter schools would siphon money from the existing school systems. But, Lewis said, state, federal and local dollars that are designated per child should follow the child, just as they would if the child were to move to a new district in a new county. Each school system would have to adjust.
I will explore the opposition to charter schools more thoroughly next Sunday.
But for now, let me say I think the whole point of schools should be to educate our children. Some of our schools are failing that benchmark and some of our children are paying dearly. We cannot continue to tolerate failing schools.
And, if we are saying more flexibility and freedom from the restrictive rules of school boards would allow all teachers to blossom into exceptional educators, why can't we simply change the governance of all traditional public schools to bring that about now?
I have no school-age children, thank the Lord. When I did, they attended both public and private schools. A lot of people don't have that freedom. If charter schools, as Lewis thinks, will bring more choice, more options for parents, I can go along with that.
Charter schools a drain on public schools
Charter schools would be an option for parents seeking the best educational fit for their children, most proponents believe. But those who oppose charters believe the schools will suck money from an already financially strapped public school system.
Last week I spoke with Wayne D. Lewis, board chairman of the Kentucky Charter Schools Association who wants Kentucky to become the 43rd state to welcome charter schools.
This week, I spoke with Jessica Hiler, president of the Fayette County Education Association, the local teachers union, who opposes charter schools.
"Charter schools have not lived up to (the promise of) higher achievement for our kids," Hiler said.
Instead, because federal, state and local money follows the student, a child enrolling in a charter school would take money from the existing system, she said.
Charters are public schools, but independently managed. So, buses to traditional schools would still have to roll even while carrying fewer students, Hiler said. Buildings would still need maintenance and upkeep even though the pool of money to operate them would shrink.
But isn't that same scenario true for students going to private schools in Fayette County? Aren't those students siphoning money from the system? Didn't they leave because the traditional public school lacked something they wanted or needed?
Black and poor kids tend to do better academically in charter schools. In traditional public schools, the achievement gap for black, Hispanic and poor kids is growing. Clearly those kids are not receiving the same education as others in the system. Are they just supposed to stay with the system, undereducated, in order for a building to have a nice roof?
Public school teachers are doing the best they can with limited resources, Hiler said.
"As public school educators, it is our responsibility" to teach all children, she said. "It is every teacher's want and hope that we close those achievement gaps sooner rather than later."
Well, it looks as though later is winning.
"I sure don't know what the magic wand or magic pill is," she said.
I don't either.
Some charters are better than traditional schools and some are worse. The rest are about the same.
Besides, Hiler said, Fayette County public schools have already come up with innovative programs to attract students and parents who are seeking a different education model.
"We already do much of the same things that charter schools want to do," Hiler said.
Students can apply for a variety of magnet schools and special programs such as the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Academy; the Locust Trace AgriScience Center; The Learning Center at Linlee; and the Carter G. Woodson Academy.
Each of those has a special appeal and many have waiting lists, indicating a student or parental desire for something new.
And if parents want more autonomy for their schools, Hiler said, they could join the site-based councils or advisory councils which are set up to decide the schools' direction.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of councils that still choose to meet when most parents are at work. I don't think that is a viable alternative to the autonomy of charters and their governing councils which would be designed to follow a specific path.
Another reason charter schools are a bad idea, Hiler said, is that they sometimes hire inexperienced teachers, or teachers with alternative certifications. And the turnover of teachers in charters is worse than the turnover in traditional public schools.
"It's really hard to get any momentum with that type of turnover," she said.
But couldn't all those requirements be put in the legislation that would allow Kentucky to establish charter schools? Couldn't the mistakes that have occurred in the 42 states that have already created charter schools be avoided in our state with a well-thought-out and worded law?
Another problem, Hiler said, is that charters can kick out difficult students and send them back to the traditional system. Don't we have a special school for children who have behavior problems? Isn't that kicking the kids to the curb?
If the traditional public school has failed to close the achievement gap, if poor and minority students are being underserved in the current system, why should we force them to stay?
If they left, say, and went to a charter school that focused on their needs, that taught them in a different style that clicked, wouldn't we all benefit? Teachers in traditional settings wouldn't have to blame the child's circumstances for his or her failure, and the child might find a place where learning is fun again.
We don't know because the legislation has been supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, causing it to be bogged down in the General Assembly.
"Instead of dividing," Hiler said, "we need to get on the same page and move toward the same goal."
We all agree the gap needs to be closed, so let's do it. Not in a few years. Now.
I'm not married to the charter school concept, but if the gap doesn't shrink soon, then the doors ought to be open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. If that is charter schools, then fine. If there is some other model, then let's go with that.
What we have, despite the wants and desires of teachers, is not working. Something has to change.
I'll speak with a third, unbiased party next week.Neutral:
Instead of charter schools we improve the ones we have
Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, remains neutral in the debate on whether charter schools should be allowed a foothold in Kentucky.
"If you say, 'Stu, do me a paper on why we should do charters,' I can do that," Silberman said last week. "If you said, 'Stu, do me a paper on why we shouldn't do charters,' I can do that."
But charter schools, pro or con, should not be the focus, he said. In fact, it's asking the wrong questions to wonder about charter schools, he said.
"The right question, we believe, is, 'What do we need to be doing to raise achievement and close the achievement gap?'" he said. "I have never run into anyone who said they don't want to close the achievement gap. People want to do it. The intent is there."
Talk of closing the gap has been around for decades. If everybody knows it exists and the gap between what poor and minority students learn and what more affluent students learn continues to grow, why shouldn't we just try charters?
After all, some research has shown charters benefit poor and minority children more than their richer counterparts, black or white. Why not make charter schools available to those underserved students and close the gap?
There are four things that must be in place to close the gap, Silberman said. They include: extra time, support, strong leadership and intervention.
Children who are academically behind should be given more class time to catch up. Additional support should be available in those schools so that, "it doesn't matter who walks through that door; it matters what we as adults do when they get there," said Silberman, who is a former superintendent for Fayette County Public Schools.
The school's principal has to be a strong leader who develops a strong culture in his school that staff and educators buy into. And there should be a means of helping teachers to understand cultures or other populations they have never worked with so they can be more effective educators.
"I don't believe we have given teachers the right tools," he said. "That is our next step, to provide a tool box."
There are schools that have embraced those four ingredients and have successfully closed the gap. Harrison and Yates elementary schools are examples.
"We are doing it in some places," he said. "We should be doing it everywhere."
Charter schools would draw some students out of a particular school and leave the rest of the students to flounder. That's not fair. But neither is leaving the schools as they are, failing to educate all the kids.
Instead, Silberman proposes leaving students where they are and turning the whole school around.
That turnaround model, which he calls Districts of Innovation II, would entail having an outside group — with a track record of closing the achievement gap — take charge of the school. The school board would select that group and then hand over the reins, letting the management group decide the length of the school day, the principal, and the direction the school would follow. The group would seek waivers for some state regulations so that creative programs could be developed.
That turnaround scenario would be started when the school had failed to meet goals for a certain period of time, he explained. The superintendent could then step in and start the process.
"If we focus on what's best for students achievement-wise, then we need to do it for all the kids," Silberman said. "It would work. It has worked."
The difference between charter schools and the Districts of Innovation II, he said, is that students don't leave the system, taking money away from a school and leaving the school or system struggling financially.
"The beauty is that it is all done under the current funding system," he said, adding that the management group could also solicit more money from the community. No money would be taken out of the school system.
"There are alternatives out there that can work in the current environment if the focus is specifically on kids," he said. "What do you have to lose here?"
There is some interest in the turnaround model on both sides of the aisle in Frankfort, Silberman said. If everything rolls smoothly, and a bill passes, the proposal could be in place by this fall. But politics seldom allows anything to run smoothly.
"Pro-charter people don't like it and anti-charter people don't like it, but people who really want to go in and impact what is happening to our kids do like it," he said.
"If we go in and try some of the Districts of Innovation II, my gut reaction is that it is going to work," Silberman said.
For Silberman, the answer is not charter schools or the status quo. It is fixing problems we have through proven gap-closing management groups, strong leadership, better training for teachers and enough wiggle room to try new ideas.
For me, the status quo is not an option. I'm going back and forth between charter schools and Silberman's turnaround model.
"We know one thing," Silberman said. "We can't wait any longer."
Surely we all feel the urgency in those words.