Charter schools should not have unfair advantage

At issue | Various commentaries on the charter school debate

Many commentary pieces have been written recently regarding the debate over charter schools in Kentucky. Allowing charter schools would certainly enhance the state's application for Race to the Top funds. The federal government believes that giving parents the option of enrolling their children in a charter school may serve to increase educational quality and accountability.

But certain influential education organizations in Kentucky don't want charter schools because they fear charter schools will detract from the viability of our public school systems.

As an educational researcher, I have read much of the research on charter schools. From what I can determine, the findings are inconclusive at best. Some studies say charter schools work, while others suggest they offer little or no advantage.

Unfortunately, the quality of most of these studies is not very good. The majority have significant methodological flaws that challenge the validity of their results.

The most we can say at this point is that we really don't know whether charter schools are necessarily good or bad. No strong evidence shows students learn better in charter schools than they would if enrolled in regular public schools. But no confirming data shows that charter schools harm students or public school systems either.

The real issue comes down to the policies set for launching charter schools. If established in Kentucky, charter schools should be required to follow two basic rules — the same rules that public schools must follow.

First, they must accept any child who wants to enroll. And second, they have to keep that child and will be held accountable for his or her learning progress, no matter what.

These rules don't make it harder for charter schools to succeed. They simply level the playing field. Public schools must abide by these rules, so why shouldn't charter schools, too?

Any school can look good if allowed selective admissions. All it has to do is admit only those students most likely to do well. Allow in students from stable homes with intact, supportive families, who are well fed, have excellent health care, a background of academic success and few behavior problems.

Do that, and your school will look pretty good, regardless of the quality of the instructional program.

Likewise, any school can appear successful if allowed to "counsel out" students who don't fit, presumably because they have unique learning problems or require special forms of instructional assistance. That is why saying charter schools work for students who stay for three years has little significance if all those students not doing well were "encouraged" to leave.

Without these rules, you stack the cards against public schools.

Charter schools could send non-fitting students back to their assigned public school where they must be admitted and kept. That is the reason many public school advocates don't like the idea of charter schools. It is not that they fear the competition. They simply want the competition to be fair.

Taking away from public schools the students most likely to succeed and leaving only those students with the greatest needs and learning challenges make it impossible for public schools to compare favorably. Whether or not you favor choice, the basis on which choices are made must be kept comparable and fair.

Let charter schools and public schools compete, but make sure the competition takes place on a level playing field. Ensure that the rules for admission and continuation are the same for both, and then make your comparisons.

I doubt many public school educators would object to that. I wonder if charter school advocates would.