By Gearl Loden
No one would argue that our schools are in need of smart and sustaining reform. Every child in our state deserves a quality education that will one day prepare them to compete globally in the workplace. Simply put, our children are not keeping up with children in top-performing countries. Regrettably, some children in our state have been denied the chance to be taught in consistently good schools by good teachers.
While the House and Senate have passed different versions of charter schools legislation in their respective chambers, this debate probably now heads to conference. It’s far from over and it demands our urgent attention. The bill that our legislators may ultimately pass might be good for our students, if it is tightly focused on improving achievement for all students and is written in the spirit of helping struggling schools.
It is critical, however, that we understand what sound charter school policy looks like and what would make this bill good for all students:
There is a place for charter schools in our academically neediest communities. Permitting them only in school zones where the local schools have been underperforming two or more years with ratings of D and F is the most effective option. For the past two years, 211 schools have fallen in this category.
However, creating a dual system in school zones with accountability ratings of A, B and C will disproportionately dilute the resources of these good schools. For each student (homeschooled or attending private or public schools) who lives within a community’s school district lines and chooses to move to a charter school, the community’s school district will be required to send a per-pupil portion of its local operational tax levy to the charter school.
Let me be clear that the economic implications of charter schools in good schools zones should be taken very seriously. We know that thriving cities with vigorous economic development depend on thriving traditional public schools. Businesses locate in cities where their workforce can be served by good schools, good health care, and good city services.
Charter schools are best managed by non-profit entities. Eliminating the loophole with for-profit charter corporations is the most prudent measure to take. When it comes to our children, there is no room to cut corners to ensure higher profits for a corporation. Tennessee, Rhode Island and New Mexico have banned for-profits from running their schools. These schools should also be held to the same assessments and accountability standards as all other publicly-funded schools.
It’s also critical that the charter schools’ governing board only allows applicants with a solid track record of success; this should be non-negotiable. There are many non-profit entities with a strong track record in managing charter schools and offering rigorous instruction.
Improving a school with poor student achievement is quite challenging and much more difficult than running a school with historically strong student achievement. Only non-profits who are capable and seasoned at turning around chronically low- performing schools should be granted charters.
There should be strong language in the bill against virtual charter schools. There is little evidence demonstrating that virtual or online charter schools have any meaningful success in student achievement. Unfortunately, there is little accountability for this model. It is difficult to verify attendance, time on task, and to monitor if real academic work is happening. In addition, there is a danger that some companies may be staffing the virtual classes with uncertified teachers or paying qualified teachers below the state salary.
Again, there is no doubt reform is needed in our schools. Charter schools, within a limited model, may indeed be part of this reform. But at the end of the day, deep reform is driven by some simple and necessary core beliefs: investing as many resources as possible in the early education years to make students ready for school; attracting excellent teachers by making the profession attractive both professionally and financially; teaching the rigorous curriculum to stretch students as much as possible; and expanding the school year so that students can master skills thoroughly.
Our children deserve no less than this.
Gearl Loden, Ph.D., is superintendent of the Tupelo Public School District.