Charter schools can succeed and empower

June 16, 2014 

Geoff Rosenberger, a University of Kentucky graduate on an advisory council for the Gatton College of Business, chairs a network of four charter schools in Rochester, N.Y.

  • At issue: June 2 commentary by Marty Solomon, "Kentucky wise to reject charter schools"

I read with interest Marty Solomon's June 2 critique of charter schools. Here, as radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, is "the rest of the story."

The challenges confronting poor, urban and minority children have been well documented. Income inequality, which has received so much recent attention, is rooted in educational inequality.

We can't fix poverty, we can't fix urban decay, we can't fix crime and we can't mend race relations until we fix urban education. Quality educational opportunity is the only way out of the recurring cycle of generational poverty. Charter schools certainly aren't a magic bullet for solving these problems, but they do represent a significant piece of the puzzle.

Unfortunately, Kentucky is one of just eight states that have yet to embrace the charter-school model.

In New York, charters are working. With enrollment heavily skewed toward poor, urban, minority students who are admitted via lottery, four out of five state charter schools outperform the district schools in the school districts in which they are located. And they achieve those results while spending nearly one-third fewer taxpayer dollars than their district counterparts.

Outside of New York City, where some, but not all, charter schools are housed in district space, charter schools receive zero taxpayer funding for facilities, which means these public schools must go hat-in-hand to the donor community to raise the funds necessary to put a roof over their students' heads.

The inference that the charter school movement is all about corporate greed is laughable.

Solomon's essay referenced the 2009 Hoover Institute's CREDO study that found "only 17 percent of charters were superior to publics," while failing to note that subsequent Hoover Institute studies have found just the opposite. Charter schools in states with effective chartering mechanisms do outperform their district counterparts.

Here's why I'm a charter-school fan. I simply don't like monopolies. I think parents, not the government, should be the ones who decide where their children go to school. Think about it. What if the government were to assign students to colleges strictly by street address? Sound absurd? Well, that's today's K-12 system.

If such a system wouldn't be acceptable for college, then why should it be acceptable for the K-12 education that prepares a child for college? Charter schools provide families a vehicle for breaking this monopoly. They empower parents with options.

Charters are schools of choice. Since students aren't automatically assigned to them, charters have to compete to attract students. That's a powerful dynamic, with parents empowered to select the school best suited to their individual child's needs.

Children learn differently. Some require a rigid, high-discipline learning environment, others thrive in an experiential learning setting. Some kids prosper in single-sex schools, others need the social interaction of mixed-gender classrooms. Some children might gravitate toward an arts-focused curriculum, others toward one based in science, math and technology.

That's the beauty of school choice, be it via charters or vouchers. Different schools are free to offer different learning environments. Families are free to choose the school whose educational approach best suits their individual child's needs.

Solomon alleges that charter schools "discourage families from enrolling underserved children in order to boost test scores." But, remember, charter schools are funded on a per-pupil basis. They have a powerful monetary incentive to keep their classrooms full, not discourage families from applying.

The charter schools whose board I chair serve the poorest of the poor, with 86 percent of our students eligible for free or reduced price lunches and 97 percent of them minorities — a demographic profile similar to the majority of charter schools nationally.

In New York, charters are issued in five-year renewable increments, with superior educational outcomes required for renewal. Do all charter schools deliver educational excellence? Of course not. But that's the beauty of it.

Those that fail to perform are closed. A failing school should be forced to close. Competition truly is a wonderful thing.

Geoff Rosenberger, a University of Kentucky graduate on an advisory council for the Gatton College of Business, chairs a network of four charter schools in Rochester, N.Y.

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