Chartered public schools can help improve students’ lives

edThis column originally appeared in Feb 14, 2018 Charleston, West Virginia Gazette-Mail.

Charter schools can improve students’ lives

School choice, like electricity, is a powerful force. It can do delightful things. But when not handled carefully, it can be destructive.

Those are two of the lessons I’ve learned over the last 40 years as a district public school teacher, administrator, parent, PTA president and researcher. Governors and legislators in more 30 states have asked me to share what’s been learned.

Here are four key lessons that may be useful.

Opportunity: Offering new district and charted public school choices can help some previously unsuccessfully youngsters in rural, suburban and urban areas blossom.

* Youngsters like Zeke, who came from a troubled rural family and was “branded” by district teachers who had worked with his older brothers, each of whom abused alcohol and drugs. Zeke started down the wrong road. But then he had an option to attend another public school started by educators who wanted to work with people like him. He cut way back on drinking, developed strong carpentry skills and has been a positive force in his community.

* Susan, who was bullied in her traditional school, and considered suicide. Fortunately, she had another option, graduated from high school and college, and is doing well.

* David, who was kicked out of two district schools for fighting. He found an option that built on his strengths, graduated and founded a nationally-known charter public school for “at risk” teens. This school helps its students produce YouTube videos, often with music, that are so well done companies have hired the high school’s students to produce videos for them.

* Exploration, opportunity and responsibility are part of what has made this country the envy of the world. Those principles produced progress. We moved beyond the horse and buggy, the telephone plugged into the wall that was available in only one color, and created thousands more innovative products and services.

Chartering also has allowed some previously frustrated district educators to create the kinds of schools they think make sense. Paying educators more is one good way to acknowledge their importance. So is saying to educators, “We’ll give you the opportunity to create a new, or convert an existing public school, open to all, if you’re willing to be responsible for results.”

Teachers in a growing number of charters serve as a majority of its board of directors. This allows teachers a new professional option, like farmer coops or medical clinics, where the doctors run the group, hiring business people to help them. I’d suggest that Senate Bill 451 be changed to permit this “teacher-powered school” option.

Transparency: Some who created charters were crooks, charlatans or incompetents. This means legislation must include

* Strict conflict of interest provisions for board members

* Open board meetings, publicized ahead of time

* Yearly financial audits (as Senate Bill 451 requires) but also posting on charter websites

* Requirements that organizations monitoring charter performance be trained about how to do their job

Assessment and Public Information: Families and social service agencies need good information not just about test scores and graduation rates to make wise decisions and offer advice about which schools are the best for each youngster. Your state department needs to provide good, accurate and comprehensive information that families are seeking.

Collaboration and competition: States like Georgia and Minnesota have found that district and charters can simultaneously compete and collaborate. The same thing happens in many states with small colleges. They compete for students and offer cooperative programs.

Some of the best schools, both district and charter, share space with colleges/universities, social service agencies or other groups. They do this to provide better services to families, and to make the best possible use of taxpayer dollars. Also, how about holding workshops in West Virginia with directors and teachers from nearby states with district and charters producing great progress with students from low-income families?

Considerable research and experience show that when a state adopts a charter law, many districts respond to these options by increasing their outreach to families and by improving their own problems.

That experience is part of the reason why, since 1971, the number of charters has grown from one school in one state, enrolling less than 75 students, to 44 states, more than 7,000 schools and three million students. It’s West Virginia’s turn.

Chartering and more district options providing opportunity, transparency, information, accountability, collaboration and competition will help many more West Virginia students reach their potential.

Parent, student and educator groups have given Joe Nathan awards for his work as a public school teacher, administrator and PTA president. He directs the Center for School Change,