Let’s support good schools — whether charter or public

The debate about the value of charter schools rages on: Are charter schools a success or failure?

As someone active in the charter “movement” from near its inception 20 years ago and who helped create the first charters in two states (Michigan and Florida), and also consulted on countless other launches elsewhere, I can unequivocally state that charter schools are both!

In 1995 I authored an article for the national weekly Education Week, foreshadowing what has already played out in charter schools and continues to this day.

From my experience, charter-school advocates tend to fall into one of three categories:

• Zealots and ideologues. These passionate people tend to view charter schools as a way toward “the truth,” or at least as a stopgap solution to public education’s problems until they can get a voucher system in place. Their enthusiasm and devotion to the cause blinds them to the complexities. This group is on a mission from God — watch out!

• Entrepreneurial scoundrels. I have no problem with people making money. In fact, I couldn’t care less if the private sector makes a profit operating public schools. But profit has to come only after the real bottom line has been met — children receiving the education they need and deserve. Yet, there are gross profits being made and some charter management making a gold mine while taxpayers and students are getting the shaft.

My concern is for the vultures I see circling charter schools with no real regard for the children attending them. These operators pad their payrolls and skimp on quality to maximize their incomes. Their motive is greed, not teaching, learning and children.

• Child-, parent- and teacher-centered reformers. Many people (myself included) believe strongly in the value of public education, yet realize it is flawed and, in some cases, broken. These individuals and organizations realize that reform requires bold risk-taking. To them, charter schools are not anti-public education, but pro-child and pro-public choice. They understand that more can and should be done — not for the system, but for students and their parents.

I concluded in the 1995 Education Week article that, “Charter schools are not THE answer.” Yet, in many cases they can and should be part of the mosaic of quality choice; an alternative where traditional public schools have failed.

Unfortunately, not much has changed since 1995.

Today, charter schools — similar to traditional public schools — have a network of apologists and lobbyists intent on protecting their share of the educational market and have, in many cases, become the new status quo. Like traditional public schools, charter schools today cover the spectrum from the good to the bad and the ugly. We need to make the “bad” better, the “good” great . . . and shut down the “ugly.”

We need one quality and accountability standard for both traditional and charter schools. We must demand quality outcomes for our children and transparency, efficiency and effectiveness in how the billions of our tax dollars are being spent. We need to stop the ideological debate, from both the left and the right — the left condemning all charters and the right citing “charter” as the solution to all ills. We need to arrive at the point where the only adjective before the word “school” that matters is “quality.”

The ideological fights within the state Capitol have never educated a single child. At the end of the day, when we focus on TLC (teaching, learning and children) plus quality (and not PCPA: power, control, politics and adults), good things happen for our kids.

A lousy school that does not educate our kids is not worthy of anyone’s support and should be made better or be closed, whether it is “traditional” or “charter.” Can’t we all agree on that?

Tom Watkins, who helped establish Florida’s first charter school, is a former Michigan superintendent of public instruction. He also served as president and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County from 1996 to 2001.

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