The U.S. has a terrific opportunity to bring dynamic public schools to its neediest children, but it just might blow it. Called charter schools elsewhere, community schools are independent public schools of choice. That’s not an oxymoron. They are new kinds of public schools, freed from most bureaucratic hassles, open to any child who chooses to attend and held to account for their results. We’ve visited dozens around the nation as a part of a new project. Most of those we’ve seen are terrific. They come in all flavors: progressive institutions with lots of hands-on learning, back-to-basics schools with stern discipline and old-fashioned curriculum, schools for at-risk kids, even a virtual charter school that operates in cyberspace. The intent was to make our students work harder, take more classes, and naturally the students would be better prepared for college or work.
The lawmakers deserve kudos for passing a solid statute that allowed such schools to be born. Thankfully, we are able to learn from the mistakes of other jurisdictions that pioneered this reform strategy. For example, a new law authorizes some states and county school boards to issue school charters, meaning that obdurate local boards cannot paralyze the whole process. Transportation must be provided so that all children can realistically choose these schools. Start-from-scratch schools are freed from the hammerlock of union contracts. The statute also allows current public schools to “convert” to charter status, though these have less freedom. While “years of study” is very key to any student’s success in college or the work force, I’ve come to believe that the degree of difficulty of the classes a student takes is just as important. General English and math are not as challenging and don’t give the same level of preparedness as college science and calculus do. There appears to be evidence that while some students are taking more years of study, it may not be in the kind of classes that lead to higher levels of achievement. There also appears to be evidence that this trend is not limited to one state but is also a national phenomenon. Work seems to be important to educational success, not busy work.
Yet the community-schools program already is stumbling into an avoidable trap: accountability problems. Just what results should these schools be expected to produce, and how will they be demonstrated? Recent reports have highlighted charter-school accountability weaknesses in some states. Allegations of fiscal mismanagement and academic underachievement are wounding this promising venture. The basic concept of a charter school is to produce superior results in return for curricular and operational independence. But superior to what? Measured how? Getting this right is key to a successful charter program.
Every community school must meet the standards spelled out in its charter contract. This puts considerable burden on whatever entity is writing the contract. Because most local boards of education haven’t been inclined to write any, essentially all the charter action so far is at the State Board of Education, which, unfortunately, isn’t bearing this burden as well as it should. Two problems have arisen.
So far, the state board seems to feel compelled to grant a charter to every applicant. We salute the zeal — nobody is more bullish about charter schools than we are — but this lack of selectivity is practically unheard of nationally, and is a worrisome precedent. Charter school authorizers should be demanding and picky. We have to assume that a few schools slipped through that weren’t really ready.
Worse, some states are lax in regard to student achievement. Reportedly under political pressure, the state board has agreed that all a new community school must do to stay in business is to match the test scores of students in its surrounding districts. Talk about setting the bar low. To add the additional credits to our curriculum, it was necessary to go to some shorter periods. Less time in each subject, more time in the hallways, a consequence unforeseen by the drafters of the legislation. The problem with simplistic laws designed to solve our complex societal problems, is that they are easily and often enacted, but seldom analyzed to determine their effectiveness. There needs to be a legislative accountability counsel established to keep track of laws. Legislators need to know the actual vs. predicted outcomes of the bills they pass. I would go so far as saying that no education-related law should ever see the light of day without first determining a way to monitor its effectiveness. Reform should be based upon accountability not good intentions.
So, it’s not that the state board doesn’t understand tough-minded educational accountability. But it isn’t bringing that tough-mindedness to bear on charter schools. It should. These schools need to be held to ambitious academic standards and judged by their measurable results, not just their marketplace appeal. They should set a precedent for conventional public schools by showing that, with the benefit of independence, it’s indeed possible to produce far better results than most regular schools are doing, particularly for poor and minority youngsters. It isn’t enough for the community schools to do as well as the schools to which they are alternatives. Most of the community school developers we know are keen to show that they can do better. The state board should insist on this, so that the promise of charter schools is fully tested. The state’s children need — and deserve — nothing less.