After successfully avoiding the debate on charter schools for many years, I've decided it is time to find out what all the fuss is about.
I plan to talk with proponents and opponents of charter schools as well as an unbiased third party. My goal is to gather enough information to form an opinion. I'll share it with you in upcoming columns.
This week I spoke with Wayne D. Lewis, board chairman of the Kentucky Charter Schools Association, author, and former school teacher who is now an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky.
I know Lewis and his wife, but neither of them has allowed me near their newborn daughter, so I don't know how much of a friend I am.
I chose to speak with Lewis, a proponent, first, because the legislature is once again looking at the possibilities of allowing some form of charter schools to be set up in Kentucky. We are only one of eight states that hasn't gone down that road. Charters would be a change from the status quo that we are familiar with.
With the help of Lewis and "Exploring Charter Schools in Kentucky: An Informational Guide," published by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence in November, let me try to define charter schools.
A charter school is a public school, funded by taxpayers, and independently operated by a group of teachers, parents, non-profit organizations, or businesses that is contractually obligated to meet student achievement goals. The difference between them and what we have now is that charter schools are allowed more freedom to be innovative. Charter schools have control of their staffing, curriculum and budgets. The amount of freedom varies from state to state.
No tuition is charged and there are no special entrance requirements. The only restriction might be a waiting list or admissions lottery if the school proves successful, Lewis said.
OK. That is what charter schools are. Why do we need them?
"I believe that parents in Kentucky want additional public school options," Lewis said. "I have never talked with a parent yet who told me, 'I don't want additional options for my kids.' Who would say that?"
A charter school could fill the need for a curriculum option that fits a child's special learning needs or aspirations, Lewis explained. Some charters specialize in technology, some in the arts, some in teaching at-risk children. Some have extended hours, and some develop special themes.
A charter school is not necessarily a successful learning institution. The 2013 National Charter School Study from the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes indicates charters tend to benefit economically disadvantaged students more than those not living in poverty. Special education students improved in math, but not in reading; and white students overall showed a significant loss of performance.
Seemingly, that indicates charter schools could close the achievement gap for poor and minorities students.
"There is no magic," Lewis said. "If anyone says there is, they are full of themselves."
But the assumption is with greater autonomy and governance structure, students in some schools could show improvement. And with the added freedom to be flexible, the schools should have no excuse to fail students.
If a charter school does not hold up its end of the bargain, does not show improved academic achievement after a set period of time, it should be closed, Lewis said.
That should be mandatory.
"A traditional public school can fail until the cows come home and no one will shut it down," he said.
Charter school parents could remove their child at will because it is the parent who chooses the school and not vice versa. Accordingly, high standards should be in place for those seeking to open a charter school, he said. Many should be denied. And there has to be adequate monitoring to ensure quality.
That sounds like a win-win.
So why is there such great opposition to charter schools?
Lewis said it comes down to politics and money. In Kentucky, Democrats, who are the majority party in the state House of Representatives, oppose the charter school concept. Republicans, who are the majority in the state Senate, support it. Legislation allowing charter schools has been approved in the Senate, but blocked in the House education committee.
Some think charter schools would siphon money from the existing school systems. But, Lewis said, state, federal and local dollars that are designated per child should follow the child, just as they would if the child were to move to a new district in a new county. Each school system would have to adjust.
I will explore the opposition to charter schools more thoroughly next Sunday.
But for now, let me say I think the whole point of schools should be to educate our children. Some of our schools are failing that benchmark and some of our children are paying dearly. We cannot continue to tolerate failing schools.
And, if we are saying more flexibility and freedom from the restrictive rules of school boards would allow all teachers to blossom into exceptional educators, why can't we simply change the governance of all traditional public schools to bring that about now?
I have no school-age children, thank the Lord. When I did, they attended both public and private schools. A lot of people don't have that freedom. If charter schools, as Lewis thinks, will bring more choice, more options for parents, I can go along with that.