Why are public charters looked at as though they are the evil empire? And why do people believe that because you support public charters, you are anti-public schools?
The state of Georgia in one state in the center of this heated debate. The rhetoric continues to escalate leading up to a November referendum asking voters to amend the state constitution to permit the state to approve certain public charter schools. I wanted to break down the issues and explain, using strategy and research-based evidence, why this amendment is good for Georgia and other states as well.
I look at public education through the lens of innovation theory. Several prominent think tanks, including the Fordham Institute, have done extensive research showing how and why we need to significantly re-engineer how our schools operate; how funds are allocated; what and how we deliver knowledge to students; and how we train, hire, compensate, and evaluate teachers. Until the system is fundamentally reinvented so that it can take advantage of new types of learning environments, we must allow other types of school designs to operate successfully. Our public education system operates as a series of local "monopolies" with heavy bureaucracies. It has been proven time and time again that monopolies do not innovate and will use their perceived power to stifle innovation at every turn. Every new idea is a threat to them, and their heavily bureaucratic infrastructure and legacy culture will inherently resist change.
While some public charter schools have been able to co-exist within a local school system, these are the exception, not the rule. Some school systems have somehow created a culture of innovation and will encourage creative thinking. Working together with charter schools, they will compromise where possible, and then everybody wins. These charters receive state and local funding, and their existence does not adversely impact local public schools because the money follows the child, meaning the public school has fewer students to cover the costs for.
Unfortunately, in most cases, local school boards will perceive a new public charter school as a threat, and will use their monopoly power to force these charters into financial distress, and eventually, closure. This is what is happening with many Georgia charter schools, for example. There are several ways that local school boards are doing this.
- They will try and push the low achievers to the charter schools and also make recruiting difficult. This took place from time to time with the recently closed Tech High.
- A recent article illustrated how the Atlanta Public schools have allocated unfunded school system pension liabilities to its charter schools, even though they are 100% unrelated to these schools. This controversial decision forced Tech HIgh to close because it triggered a $360K shortfall AFTER budgets had been set and contracts sent out to teachers. Other charters such as KIPP will see a more than $1 million negative impact on their budgets. The option of litigation is being explored by the charter schools due to this very controversial decision by APS. Because local schools have failed to innovate for decades, they will try and transfer any budget pain onto charter schools. Remember, because the system has not been fundamentally altered in more than a hundred years, taxpayer dollars have been spent to protect the status quo, and not improve teacher training, nor the manner in which knowledge is delivered to the child.
- For new charters, local school boards will delay voting on an application, and in many cases, not vote at all. This is even happening in other states such as New Jersey. As my friend, Michael Horn, Executive Director of the Innosight Institute, said in response to the legislative delays in that state, "Blocking or delaying the option of full-time online schooling because of a fear of lack of research isn’t the right tact to take. States should encourage innovation in order to meet students’ individual needs and set up the regulatory environment that rewards providers for doing that well."
These reactions by local school boards are not surprising, because established organizations fear change at every turn. Now lets get back to the situation in Georgia.
The Georgia Supreme court ruled llast year, contrary to what is explicitly written in its constitution, that local school boards have "exclusive authority" to apporve public charter schools. The amendment, which has been misrepresented and distorted by those who support the status quo, is plainly clear.
- Local school boards are still encouraged to approve charter applications
- In the event that a local school board rejects a charter application, the state may elect to approve the application in accordance with this new amendment. In this case, the charter school will ONLY receive state funding, and local schools will not have their funding impacted because of the new charter school.
Nowhere in the amendment does it say anything about "taxation without representation" or "local schools will see their funds reduced," or "this will lead to private school vouchers." What this is trying to do is fix Georgia's constitution, which by the way, also celebrates mediocrity. I feel compelled to add that what is not being changed in the constitution is this wording: "Georgia's citizens have the right to an adequate education." I am not kidding. It says "adequate." Not "quality," but "adequate."
Competition drives innovation, and it is best for these new schools to operate independently of the local school boards so they can truly innovate. Nonetheless, these charter schools cannot select students based on athletic talent, achievement or any other qualifier. Further, Charters have to meet specific academic targets and management principles that are laid out in the charter agreement. Failure to do so means revocation of the charter.
People are afraid of change, and while not every charter school will be successful, many of them have demonstrated achievement levels far higher than traditional local public schools. Charter schools should not be seen as the sole "magic tonic" that will fix our education system in one swoop. They do, however, provide new options for families who cannot afford to send their children to private schools and who may require a different type of learning environment. Charter schools are experimenting with some promising new learning designs, including blended learning. Look at Carpe Diem Schools in Arizona, or the International Studies School Network. Many of these charter schools have shown superior levels of achievement and are operating at a cost per pupil of less than $6K! As a means of comparison, APS spends $15K per pupil. Even normalizing for special education, the costs are still more than $10K per pupil! A more local example is Drew Charter School, which went through a great deal of political stress to get conditional approval by APS of its high school charter application, despite the fact that the graduation rate for its students is more than 20 percentage points higher than APS!
I am not going to bore you in this already lengthy post with extensive research data on charters and achievement. What I will leave you with is a quote from a recent report authored by the Fordham Institute: Education Reform for the Digital Era, which discusses digital learning in particular, but also highlights of the major barriers with continuing to let local school boards have monopoly power:
Leaving local districts and their boards in charge of digital instruction will retard innovation, entrepreneurship, collaboration, and smart competition, simultaneously stifling students’ ability to find—and be taught by—the very best educators in the state, region, nation, or even world. It will raise costs, undermine efficiency, block rich instructional options, restrict school choice and parental
influence, and strengthen the hand of other interest groups—including but not limited to already-too-powerful teacher unions
It is important to truly understand the differences between "improvement and "innovation." A colleague of mine, Tom Vander Ark, wrote a post today that eloquently states the difference between the two:
Improvement is doing things better. Innovation is doing things differently.
Lets give charter schools every opportunity to innovate. They were not designed to just "do things better." If Georgia's citizens support the referendum in November, then Georgia's children will win, and Georgia can be looked upon as leader, not a laggard, in the efforts to reform U.S. public education.