It is the time of year when those who fear and loathe charter schools blame them for the problems of the traditional public school system.
Two years ago they opposed the expansion of a successful charter to include a high school. Last year they passed legislation that created rules and regulations to “help” charters sustain themselves and perform better; however that obvious controlling technique was not strong enough for those who fear and loathe charter schools.
Again this year legislators want to protect public districts. Meanwhile Delawares traditional public schools continue the steady performance decline that started five decades ago.
The first charter school opened in 1996, less than twenty years ago. How can charter schools be blamed for Delawares declining performance that was already more than 30 years old when the first charter school was opened?
Unfortunately the politicization of charter schools has been successful. It has raised emotions and diverted attention away from a productive focus on the re-design of the antiquated traditional public school system. Even those with good intentions, by diverting attention from public schools, are weakening the very education system they are trying to protect.
The goal of maintaining status quo by controlling and limiting charter schools is critical to the education establishment maintaining control. The Delaware Constitution charges legislators to provide an efficient system. Delawares system is clearly not efficient: We are last in USA in SAT scores, ninth in dollars spent per student, and fourth in administrative overhead. There is hope with truly revolutionary models that are challenging traditional assumptions about schools.
“Education is entering a revolutionary period. New models are emerging that radically question our assumptions about how schools work. There is a growing realization that our model for what a school is and does has changed little in the past 100 years, and the 1912 school is fundamentally inadequate for the challenges of 2012. More importantly, reformers are not just talking the talk -- they are succeeding in creating successful and sustainable new models of schooling.”1
What could be better than policy that fosters a diversity of innovation to raise satisfaction, performance, and continuous quality improvement, while minimizing financial risk because it is proven on a local level?
Why does Delaware pursue an old-fashioned one-size-fits-all model rather than variety that promotes education innovation and allows for lesson plan customization?
We already know the answers.
First, the political and education establishment would have to tolerate diversity where ALL students have equal opportunity for the kind of education that fits his or her needs, rather than fitting the child into a standardized model which is more convenient for the establishment.
Second, the political and education establishment prospers from periodic mandated public school programs. Their control is enhanced at taxpayers expense.
Charter schools evolved as an institutional innovation given autonomy from many regulations and restrictive contracts in exchange for accountability at the school level. Unburdened by regulation from government bureaucracies like the Department of Education and special interest groups like unions, principals and teachers were able to control their classrooms, stimulate innovation, and potentially improve traditional schools.
Third, re-framing the discussion sheds light on issues that would reasonably require the political establishment to face reality and make decisions that will not be popular with large, influential groups like unions.
The Delaware State Education Association (DSEA) is a well-funded and powerful influence on the political system. Since charter schools are non-union it is only natural for the union to oppose them (DSEA says nothing about unionized vocational-tech schools that also compete for college-bound students – essentially charter schools with a different name).
DSEAs fear was justified in a 2007 survey that showed pubic support for charter schools. Reacting to preserve their influence, the DSEA argues charters divert resources that should be devoted to fixing public schools.2
Since then the state has spent $7 billion on education, with total education spending approaching $15 billion. The resources have been provided to the public schools but the system has not improved. Yet, the argument continues: charter schools take resources away from public schools.
Charter schools do not fiscally harm traditional public schools. When a child attends a charter school only a portion of the cost directly used to educate the child travels with the child. As much as 40% that is considered fixed cost stays with the traditional school even though the child no longer attends that school.
The truth is a significant amount of money is not spent in the public classroom which should be part of the re-framed discussion about the public system: How and how well is taxpayer money spent?
Given the fact that charters work with as much as sixty percent less than the total cost of traditional schools it would seem they are a good investment, particularly given their results.
"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." Nelson Mandela
It is time for all children to have an equal opportunity for an education that best fits them.
Delaware has an under-performing public school system, operating in a highly mature, ineffective and self-protective political environment. Advancement in institution design and technology make revolutionary change possible. It is time for change that unleashes for each student the potential of diverse models and of public schools freed from the ineffective programmatic changes of the past.
And, it is time to stop the fear and loathing of charter schools or any other system.
Director, Center for Education Excellence
Caesar Rodney Institute
1 Greg Forster, PH.D and James L Woodworthm M.Ed. “The Green School Revolution and School Choice”. The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, June 2012.
2 Bleden Russonello & Stewart. Fix the Schools We Have First Delawareans consider the expansion of charter schools. December 2007.