Kentucky: United We Stand, Divided We Fall
Seven states have resisted the urge to go to charter schools. Kentucky is one of them. They kept bussing plans from the 1970s integration in place between the city of Louisville and its surrounding suburbs. Yes, there was some complaining, but forty years later children are in classes with diverse socio economic and racial groups. The latest opinion poll shows an 89% approval rating. The Atlantic article contrasts Louisville with Detroit where charters abound. Louisville comes out ahead, hands down.
Desegregation helped the city thrive. Unlike Detroit, where affluent citizens fled to suburbs and bankrupted the inner city, all sorts of people and businesses flourish in Louisville. Now their city cohesion is threatened with the introduction of three charter school bills in the state legislature.
Rep. Moffett’s bill 103 allow charters statewide but includes multiple authorizers. This means that not just local school districts but mayors and universities or others could start a charter school. Charter schools are essentially private schools that operate with public funds. How is the public to know the effectiveness of charters? If there are multiple authorizers, there will be different standards of oversight. Some states have had charter school operators shop their ideas from one authorizer to another to find the one that will let them in. The charter industry likes multiple chances to get started, but there are many reasons to keep the oversight and regulation of charters local and systematic. Here is the take of one charter school proponent on why single authorizers work better.
Rep. John Carney, Chair of the House Education Committee, introduced his version of a charter bill 520 that allows only local school districts to authorize charters. Disputes would be moderated by the State Board of Education in much the way that Florida operates. The charters would take the same state accountability tests, follow the same health, safety, financial and transparency laws, and give priority to low income students attending low achieving schools. The staff analysis of this bill points out important concerns about sectarian and online schools, financial impact on public schools, provision for school closure as well as a major constitutional concern.
Targeting charters for low income students in struggling schools can be a trap. Charters typically siphon off students in these areas who are more likely to succeed thus creating a downward spiral in those neighborhood schools. It can make a bad situation worse. The attrition rates of charters is typically high for both students and teachers. The charter schools themselves fail at a high rate. After all, the only ‘advantage’ of charters in those areas is that they can require teachers to work longer hours with less pay and no retirement benefits. This is how the charters fund the extended time needed to improve student learning. It’s all about money that is in short supply.
Bill 70 introduced by Senator Neal, would limit charters to a pilot project in Jefferson County. The results of any pilot are clear. They increase segregation both economically and racially, and they do not improve academic achievement.
If the educational goal is to close the achievement gap, then it will take something more disruptive than charter schools. It will take a commitment to equity and that costs money. Equity means that the needs of all children are addressed.
- It likely will require more time time–a longer school day and school year.
- It will help families and students to get access at schools to physical, mental and social support services; in other words, a community school concept where existing community services parents use are delivered in schools, not all over town.
- School populations will be diverse in order to create a climate of possibilities.
- Instructional strategies will have to be engaging to students with different abilities and interests. This means that test driven curriculum and teaching strategy must yield to a more hands on, group based approach.
- School cultures must be supportive and welcoming, not solely competitive for the next advanced class, targeted magnet, or gifted program. Finding communalities must be as important as identifying exceptionalities.
There may be instances in which local district may benefit from the flexibility to try new instructional programs in a limited setting with a particular group of students. Often state laws, district and teacher union regulations make these innovation programs difficult to implement. Here in Gainesville, we have a charter that is affiliated with a psychologist’s clinic to help dyslexic children. It is a unique approach that would not fit well in the district school, but the charter works with the district staff. These collaborations can work but they are targeted to specific needs the district recognizes.
What does not work for schools is a whole sale ideology that private enterprise operates better than public responsibility. In Florida, over a third of the charters operate for-profit, skim millions in self interested real estate and management scams, and compete directly with competent public schools thus weakening both the charter and public sectors. The educational funding pie gets divided three ways, public, charter, and private tax vouchers which ensures no sector is adequately supported.
One of our mottos comes to mind: School Choice is a Distraction, not a Solution.