Give charters a chance

March 06, 2001|By Chris Braunlich

FAIRFAX, Va. -- One issue to be resolved in the Maryland legislature is whether a local school board should be the only agency permitted to grant a charter school. Based on the record of the San Francisco School Board and others around the country, doing that would be a tragic mistake.

Charter schools are independent public schools, designed and operated by educators, parents, community leaders and others. They are sponsored by local or state educational organizations that monitor their quality and integrity, but allow them to operate freed from the traditional regulatory red tape that hog-ties traditional public schools.

Charters have been increasingly successful at turning schools and the children in them around.

Consider San Francisco's Edison Elementary School. It was one of the worst performing in the city when the school district decided three years ago to let it "go charter." It permitted Edison Schools, Inc. (the name similarities are coincidence) to run the school and make the changes that would help kids to learn. Edison Schools also runs three elementary schools in Baltimore City.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on Tuesday's Opinion
Commentary page, "Give charters a chance," incorrectly stated the increase in one school's test scores. The article should have read:
"Since converting from a traditional public school to a charter, the Edison Charter Academy has (according to the school district's figures) raised dismal second-grade reading scores from the 21st national percentile to the 33rd national percentile; second-grade math scores from the 21st national percentile to the 57th national percentile; fifth-grade reading from the 24th national percentile to the 35th national percentile; and fifth-grade math from the 32nd national percentile to the 49th national percentile."
The Sun apologizes for the error.

Since converting from a traditional public school to a charter, the Edison Charter Academy has (according to the school district's figures) raised dismal scores in second grade reading by 12 percent, second grade math by 36 percent, fifth grade reading by 11 percent and fifth grade math by 17 percent.

These accomplishments are nearly unheard-of in traditional public schools with similar backgrounds.

But now that the school has started to succeed under new management, the school board wants to yank back the charter. The reason? A new board majority is "philosophically against a corporation running a school," even as its members acknowledge that test scores have risen.

Nor is the San Francisco board alone.

Local school boards around the country have filed a dozen lawsuits in an effort to block charter school approvals. In Utah, the school boards association challenged the constitutionality of charters in a bid to stop eight schools from forming.

In Virginia, the charter law granted local boards the right to simply deny all charter applications in their districts. Fifty of 132 school divisions representing a majority of the state's children "just said no." When legislation was introduced to extend the deadline to allow local boards to change their minds, the school boards association lobbied against it. Because there are no other chartering agencies, parents and teachers who want to create successful alternatives for their children's education are just out of luck.

And in Illinois, public school teacher Marilyn Keller Ritt- meyer created a plan for the Thomas Jefferson Charter School only to find it rejected by 11 school boards before the state finally ordered one to accept it.

Local school boards inevitably argue that chartering should be a "local decision, decided by local authorities who understand local issues."

But the reality is that, for local boards, it becomes a matter of pride and control. Granting a charter would be admitting that they were unable to successfully educate some children. Voluntarily giving up their power runs the risk that the public will discover there is a group of people that might actually educate children better. And what institution ever willingly creates its own competition?

I should know. I'm a local school board member and once accepted the argument of "local control." But in conversations with colleagues from throughout the country, it is clear the primary concern of far too many local boards is not how do we better educate children, but how do we maintain control. Even while claiming to be open to charters, the state school board associations work overtime to create impediments and thus work to give charters a "death of a thousand cuts."

Maryland residents have an opportunity to create educational alternatives this year. But among the many provisions a strong charter law needs to be successful is to provide alternative chartering authorities, from universities to state boards to mayors.

To pass a law without those alternatives will guarantee years of conflict and roadblocks by local boards over issues of control when the primary issue ought to be doing what's best for kids.

Chris Braunlich is vice president for policy and communications at the Center for Education Reform in Washington and a member of the Fairfax County, School Board.

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