The answer, as is usually the case, lies somewhere in between. At times, this month’s debate in Montgomery over charter schools has missed that middle-of-the-road mark.
The experiences of the 41 states with charter schools show that some do excellent work in preparing students while others have struggled.
Perhaps we should start with some basics about charter schools. The concept grew out of a belief that burdensome rules, bureaucracy and one-size-fits-all standards were holding public schools back.
The proposed fix was to allow groups interested in doing things differently to apply to create a charter school. If this startup was given the greenlight by an oversight board, it could be freed from some of the rules of a more traditional public school. Charters could attempt to lure students (and their accompanying per-pupil share of taxpayer money) to their alternative school.
Let’s stop down for an important point: Charter schools are public schools, meaning students don’t pay tuition to attend.
In exchange for loosened regulations, charter schools must live up to their end of the bargain by a careful accounting of the public’s money and reaching or exceeding academic standards.
In other states, charter schools have promoted various methods of education. Some focus on rescuing at-risk students on the verge of dropping out. Others build a curriculum around a classic education, including learning Latin.
Still others concentrate on STEM, edu-speak for science, technology, engineering and math courses. Such will be the case later this summer when the University of Texas at Tyler begins classes at three branches of a charter school it is calling UT Tyler Innovation Academy. According to a university press release, “The Innovation Academy will employ cutting-edge educational practices in a shortened school day, such as project-based learning, individualized education and technology integration.”
Tyler, an east Texas town of 96,000, is an interesting case study. Parents there have lots of options when it comes to schooling, including traditional public schools, home-schooling, private schools, magnet schools, gifted and talented programs and, yes, charters, of which there are about seven in the Tyler area. Texas has had charter schools since 1996.
Robert Bush, CEO of Tyler-based Mentoring Minds, a publisher of educational materials, says the city is a “microcosm” of the various ways to educate children. His company’s products serve all of those different forms of schools. To him, the more important revolution in education is steering students toward a critical-thinking approach as opposed to rote memorization.
In the current version of the bill before the Legislature, charter schools could be created in 22 low-performing school districts across the state; Anniston City Schools are included on that list. A cap of 20 charter schools statewide would also apply.
Even this modest attempt has some public school advocates worried that draining money from struggling public schools will make matters worse.
I asked Bush if he’d heard similar concerns in Tyler, if the city’s handful of charter schools were harming traditional public schools. He said he had not, adding that the majority of students there attend traditional public schools. Still, Bush added, he is “very sympathetic” to concerns that charter schools could do harm to a cherished alma mater in small-town Alabama.
The debate over Alabama’s HB 541 will continue at the Statehouse. Bush posed the question that should be top of mind for parents with school-age children as well as Montgomery policymakers, regardless of their stance on charter schools. His query: “Is it in the best interest of the student?”
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.