Knowing when and for whom to employ the charter school remedy is tricky business. Some people believe public education is in desperate straits and see charter schools as a panacea for all ills, so they favor aggressive expansion of charter schools irrespective of demonstrable student need. But they are wrong on all counts.
The language of CA Charter Law and the history of charter schools nationally are perfectly clear that charter schools were and are intended for students struggling in a standard public school program, which historically has been economically disadvantaged or otherwise under-achieving categories of students.
That said, I believe the decision whether to create a magnet or charter school within a district should ultimately rest with the elected district Trustees responsible for balancing the educational needs, priorities and resources of their community.
From time to time, a group of public school parents will coalesce around an idea or desire they have for their children, and they want it to become part of their district’s educational program. Sometimes these ideas are adopted by the district, sometimes not.
It’s terrific that parents petition their district for changes to the academic program, but professional educators and administrators should be trusted to decide whether to change the program based on what students need and not necessarily what parents demand.
After a recent meeting with a public school district (District X) Superintendent who has been presented with a charter school petition that is fundamentally about creating a “parent participation” program, I sent him this stream of consciousness note after reflecting on his challenge, putting myself in his shoes:
The mission and statutory duty of the [District X] is to provide high quality K-8 education to all students residing within district boundaries who choose to attend a district school. We employ expert staff, deliver a comprehensive, enriched curriculum to all students and strive for continual improvement. As a public agency, we are prohibited from showing preference and bias in the provision of educational services, except as special remedy. Whenever necessary, appropriate and possible, given our various constraints, we supplement our program with exceptional services for students in need, bearing in mind our duty to defend equity among all district students.
Upon review and before approving any charter school application, we must ask and answer the following questions, with a strict focus on the needs of [District X] students:
- Is the proposed charter school program educationally necessary?
- What is the specific educational problem the charter school seeks to solve?
- Is the charter itself dependent on the identification and successful remediation of an educational problem?
- For which students does the educational problem exist and how have we identified/qualified the students?
- Does the educational problem to be solved manifest within the [District X] student population generally or does the problem exist in only certain demographic segments?
- Has the charter school identified a new educational problem we previously were unaware of?
- By what method/metrics/means have we defined/identified/measured this educational problem?
- Does the educational literature support a claim of this specific educational problem?
- What is the charter school’s proposed solution to this educational problem?
- Does the educational literature support the theory that such proposed remedy will be an effective solution for this specific educational problem?
- Are there other remedies known or suspected to be effective in remediating this educational problem?
- Would the charter school’s program create for [District X] an opportunity to learn more about the alleged educational problem and potential remedies?
- How can we ensure that students enrolled in the charter are, in fact, impacted by this educational problem and how will we measure remedial progress?
- Will it ever be possible for a student enrolled in the program to progress to the point where they no longer manifest the educational problem, and therefore become disqualified from participation?
- Are the program outcomes measures captured and analyzed in a statistically valid way?
- Are the findings arising from the charter school experiment extensible to other [District X] schools/programs so that [District X] students in general can realize a benefit from the charter?
In short, I think it’s very important to focus (your board) entirely on student needs rather than parental desires:
- Is there a problem for students and how do we know that?
- Is it something we didn’t know about before, or have we seen this show before in other districts?
- If we already know about it, how do we normally solve it?
If the solution is, in effect, to partition an equity-based program into higher- and lower-performing castes, this is illegal and discriminatory in public education.
Parent participation is not a student problem, it’s a parent desire, and not for all parents. The fact is that, just like financial wherewithal, volunteer time is unevenly distributed among [District X] families. By allowing families of greater financial means, higher volunteer availability and more focus on education in general to secede from the “commons” you actually undermine many important values in the classroom.
An integrated classroom, with both higher- and lower-achieving students, provides important benefits for all students.
PS – CA courts have recently ruled that requiring parents to volunteer in the classroom as a condition of their child’s enrollment in a magnet or charter program is illegal.