Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, remains neutral in the debate on whether charter schools should be allowed a foothold in Kentucky.
"If you say, 'Stu, do me a paper on why we should do charters,' I can do that," Silberman said last week. "If you said, 'Stu, do me a paper on why we shouldn't do charters,' I can do that."
But charter schools, pro or con, should not be the focus, he said. In fact, it's asking the wrong questions to wonder about charter schools, he said.
"The right question, we believe, is, 'What do we need to be doing to raise achievement and close the achievement gap?'" he said. "I have never run into anyone who said they don't want to close the achievement gap. People want to do it. The intent is there."
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Talk of closing the gap has been around for decades. If everybody knows it exists and the gap between what poor and minority students learn and what more affluent students learn continues to grow, why shouldn't we just try charters?
After all, some research has shown charters benefit poor and minority children more than their richer counterparts, black or white. Why not make charter schools available to those underserved students and close the gap?
There are four things that must be in place to close the gap, Silberman said. They include: extra time, support, strong leadership and intervention.
Children who are academically behind should be given more class time to catch up. Additional support should be available in those schools so that, "it doesn't matter who walks through that door; it matters what we as adults do when they get there," said Silberman, who is a former superintendent for Fayette County Public Schools.
The school's principal has to be a strong leader who develops a strong culture in his school that staff and educators buy into. And there should be a means of helping teachers to understand cultures or other populations they have never worked with so they can be more effective educators.
"I don't believe we have given teachers the right tools," he said. "That is our next step, to provide a tool box."
There are schools that have embraced those four ingredients and have successfully closed the gap. Harrison and Yates elementary schools are examples.
"We are doing it in some places," he said. "We should be doing it everywhere."
Charter schools would draw some students out of a particular school and leave the rest of the students to flounder. That's not fair. But neither is leaving the schools as they are, failing to educate all the kids.
Instead, Silberman proposes leaving students where they are and turning the whole school around.
That turnaround model, which he calls Districts of Innovation II, would entail having an outside group — with a track record of closing the achievement gap — take charge of the school. The school board would select that group and then hand over the reins, letting the management group decide the length of the school day, the principal, and the direction the school would follow. The group would seek waivers for some state regulations so that creative programs could be developed.
That turnaround scenario would be started when the school had failed to meet goals for a certain period of time, he explained. The superintendent could then step in and start the process.
"If we focus on what's best for students achievement-wise, then we need to do it for all the kids," Silberman said. "It would work. It has worked."
The difference between charter schools and the Districts of Innovation II, he said, is that students don't leave the system, taking money away from a school and leaving the school or system struggling financially.
"The beauty is that it is all done under the current funding system," he said, adding that the management group could also solicit more money from the community. No money would be taken out of the school system.
"There are alternatives out there that can work in the current environment if the focus is specifically on kids," he said. "What do you have to lose here?"
There is some interest in the turnaround model on both sides of the aisle in Frankfort, Silberman said. If everything rolls smoothly, and a bill passes, the proposal could be in place by this fall. But politics seldom allows anything to run smoothly.
"Pro-charter people don't like it and anti-charter people don't like it, but people who really want to go in and impact what is happening to our kids do like it," he said.
"If we go in and try some of the Districts of Innovation II, my gut reaction is that it is going to work," Silberman said.
For Silberman, the answer is not charter schools or the status quo. It is fixing problems we have through proven gap-closing management groups, strong leadership, better training for teachers and enough wiggle room to try new ideas.
For me, the status quo is not an option. I'm going back and forth between charter schools and Silberman's turnaround model.
"We know one thing," Silberman said. "We can't wait any longer."
Surely we all feel the urgency in those words.