OP-ED: Providence Journal, July 14, 2004

R.I. Needs These Experiments — Unwise Moratorium on Charter Schools

By: Ron Wolk

THE RHODE ISLAND legislature's decision to put a moratorium on chartering new schools is the wrong decision at the wrong time.

School-chartering legislation has been adopted by some 40 states because policymakers have come to realize that betting all our chips on the single school-improvement strategy of standards-based accountability is both unwise and unnecessary. Today's (and tomorrow's) students are extremely diverse. They come from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds; they learn at different rates and in different ways; they have different interests and different talents. Yet we funnel all of them into a monolithic educational system that does not even begin to recognize these differences. Then we wonder why so many of these kids don't like school and don't do well.

In permitting -- for the first time -- entities other than school districts to create new public schools, states are taking a bold step toward reform that can produce the diverse educational opportunities that our children need. Despite successful efforts, mostly by teachers' unions, to weaken and restrict charter laws, there are now nearly 3,000 charter schools in the United States, and enough kids on their waiting lists to fill 900 more.

Opponents of charter schools say that they drain money from conventional schools, but the tax dollars that go to charter schools accompany the students who enroll in them. Those funds are supposed to be for the education of the students, not for featherbedding and protecting the status quo. One of the primary reasons for creating charter schools is to give parents and students a choice; it is illogical, then, to punish the charter schools for attracting students away from schools that are not meeting the students' needs.

Opponents also say that charter schools are not accountable. It is vitally important to remember that charter schools are public schools, and that they are actually more accountable than conventional public schools. A charter school spells out in its charter what its goals are. If it fails to meet those goals within the term of the charter, the state can withdraw the charter. How many underperforming conventional schools in Rhode Island have been closed in the past 50 years? If Providence's Hope High School were a charter school, it would have been closed long ago.

It is true that charter schools are exempt from some of the regulations and bureaucracy that hamper conventional public schools, but charter schools are subject to civil-rights and safety regulations and most of the academic requirements mandated by the state. The rub is that they are not required to unionize and are free to choose their own teachers: That is perceived as an assault on the power of the teachers' unions.

We can and should keep trying to fix our conventional schools, but we should also step up our efforts to create new small schools that are different from traditional schools and different from each other. Charters are one way of doing that, although not the only way.

If school-district leaders were not so mired in the status quo, they would replace underperforming schools with new schools, as some cities are doing. Last month, for example, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley announced that he would pursue the "only solution left" to fix public education: shutting down about 60 of the city's worst-performing schools and replacing them with new schools that have new staffs and new programs. Over the next six years, the mayor plans to create more than 100 new, smaller schools to replace those that are closed. A third of the new schools will be charter schools; a third will be operated by independent contractors; and a third will be created as small schools to be run by the school district.

The new schools (most of them secondary schools) will serve the poor minority students who, research shows, are most likely to drop out. And Mayor Daley promises the businesses and nonprofits and other contractors that start the new schools that they will have public funding, freedom from regulations, and considerable autonomy in designing their educational programs. A business group has already raised half of the $50 million needed to fund start-up costs of the new schools.

Chicago is not the only place moving to create new schools. Milwaukee, New York City, Buffalo, San Diego, and a host of other school districts are increasing their numbers of charter schools, contract schools, and innovative new district schools.

I've heard Rhode Island called the "backward state," and haven't always understood why. But the legislature's decision to put a moratorium on charter schools can only substantiate that charge.

Ron Wolk, of Warwick, is the founding editor of Education Week and chairman of the Big Picture Company

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