“We need to get us some of that there re-form.”
--Gov. Pappy O’Daniels' campaign advisors in O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Even though Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot has been MIA for the past few years, reform continues to be a political buzzword. Nowhere is that debate hotter than in public education.
Lately, it seems anyone who spent even one semester in public school has a bright idea for how to solve problems with the public school system. Some want to privatize schools with vouchers. Others want to break up the APS monster into smaller districts. Still others just want to take over the schools entirely and decide policy for the school board.
Meanwhile, a growing reform movement in our state and across the country--that of charter schools--is slowly proving itself. And, surprisingly, it's not being led by anti-public school zealots. Progressives are leading this public education reform movement as they fight to keep public education alive.
Most social progressives like me believe free and equal public education is fundamental to our democratic society. However, most are beginning to understand that we need serious reform in our public school system and that charters are probably our best hope of changing how public schools operate.
It's easy to criticize big-city school districts for their inefficiency and warehousing of kids. APS continues to be everyone’s scapegoat, but there’s plenty of blame to go around. Unbridled and unplanned growth in our city has made it impossible for school construction to keep up. Bureaucracy and denial at APS have made them unwilling to take a hard look at much needed reforms. And many of my friends in the teachers’ unions are resistant to embracing the kind of innovation promoted by the charter school movement.
The reality is that charter schools offer the best plan for true innovation and accountability within our public education system. So why are increasing numbers of reform-minded progressives supporting, and often starting, charter schools? There are many reasons.
Smaller schools. Many experts agree that small school size is becoming even more important than small class size. Most charters in Albuquerque and around the state have less than 200 kids enrolled. That gives students and their teachers and administrators a chance to really get to know each other. For many kids, escaping or fading into the background is how they survive largely unchallenged in a big high school or middle school. There are few anonymous underachieving kids at charter schools.
Accountability. One of the things that differentiates charters from other public schools is they can be closed down for underperformance. That cannot be said for most public schools. There have been some mistakes and mismanagement in a few charter schools, but unlike other public schools, charter schools that do not perform or cannot manage their finances lose their charter. Charter schools statewide scored 11 points higher in Average Yearly Performance (AYP) under state and national standards. Fifty-six percent of charter schools made AYP versus 46 percent of non-charters statewide.
Demand. Perhaps the biggest testimony to the success of charters is the fact that most of the 52 current charters statewide have waiting lists. No doubt the newly chartered schools will have the same experience. From just a handful a few years ago to 63 currently approved statewide, 10,000 New Mexico kids now attend charter schools. That represents almost 4 percent of the statewide public school population. In Albuquerque, it's 8 percent. Parents are choosing with their feet. They want options outside the big impersonal school for their child.
Local control. Charter schools create true community schools. Each charter school forms its own governing board comprised of parents and community members. This provides much more local control. One size doesn’t fit all. Charter schools fill a niche for not just kids who aren't succeeding in bigger public schools; they also provide different options in terms of emphasis, curriculum and schedules. In Albuquerque alone there’s a school for the performing arts, a flexible computer-based high school, a Downtown high school that requires completion of two college courses before graduation, a dual language middle school and a high school that works with the business community to train students for construction trades.
Filling the Gap. Charter schools serve higher percentages of special education and free and reduced lunch students. The racial makeup of the schools generally mirrors that of public schools. In short, charters serve some of the more difficult kids in our state. Despite this, on average they have scored higher than public schools. The myth that charter schools skim the best and brightest is simply not true. While it is true that many charter school students have parents who are more involved, many charter schools also serve populations of students who are most in need and have the least parent involvement.
There is a reason why 42 states have active charter schools. The proof is in the pudding. Charters are providing the kind of alternative and innovation that is sorely needed in public school systems across the country.
So to my fellow progressives I say, don’t let your dedication to a common, accessible public education system cloud your support for the innovation charters offer. They're our last best hope of making public schools work for everyone. My progressive education friends, maybe it’s time we get us some of that there re-form.