The charter school world got body slammed once again at the National School Boards Conference. For this reason, it seemed appropriate that the NSBA’s 5,000 delegates shared the convention center this week with WrestleMania 2014 attendees.
The convention was held in New Orleans, where nine out of 10 students are enrolled in charter schools. The metaphorical body slam was stealth, as charter schools were treated as a non-existent issue. The exclusion of such an important topic spoke volumes.
The conference’s rallying cry was “Standup4publicschools,” as if charter schools are private. This is a huge misconception. Charter schools are free, publicly-funded schools that operate independently from districts. Charter schools receive strong support from President Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and California Gov. Jerry Brown. They must get authorization to exist from a public entity. In this state, only publicly elected district school boards, county boards of education or the state board of education—whose members are appointed by the governor—can approve the operation of a charter. In Louisiana, only public school boards and non-profits can operate charters.
Charters operate for a five-year license and get revoked in New Orleans if certain predetermined benchmarks are not met. In the memorandum of understanding (MOU) currently being negotiated with Sunrise Middle School, approved on appeal by the county Board of Edcuation last month, certain two-year benchmarks for achievement will need to be reached or a vote for revocation should occur.
Charter schools are a market-driven choice movement for parents and students. By leaving the traditional public school system, parents and students have voted with their feet. The sole motivation is doing what they believe is in the best educational and social interest of their children.
I will stipulate that we need to be cognizant of potential unintended consequences, such as students being left behind in traditional public school systems, where the lowest performers and children of underserved communities end up segregated. This is why we must work tirelessly to cooperate with one another.
The leaders of NSBA trying to buck the trend of charters will be on the wrong side of history. When I approached a former NSBA president about the absence of conference programming that highlights successful collaborative models of traditional public and charter schools, he said he is opposed to charters because many are private charter management organizations making money with public dollars. He said he is not opposed to public charters.
It is the results for students that should be key. For my tax dollars, the goal should be a holistic, project-based, and arts rich curriculum where every student graduates “innovation ready,” as conference keynote speaker and NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman said. All of this must occur in a publicly funded school that provides a safe and nurturing environment for ALL students.
Whether that is accomplished through non-profit charters, private charters or traditional public schools is irrelevant.
Sir Ken Robinson, another conference keynoter, made a point of telling delegates that it is not a charter school versus traditional public issue. He said there are good and bad schools in both worlds. Robinson said that the role of education must be to promote the individual gifts of creativity we are all born with, but get exorcized in too many of our American schools. “Life is organic,” he said. “We should not sit people down and standardize them.”
So, the question becomes, are we bold enough to work toward the ultimate goal—providing high quality education for every child, irrespective of charters or traditional public? Can we be courageous enough to advocate for a bill like SB 837, which would provide universal preschool so that all children begin kindergarten with a proper head start? Time will tell.