Taking a fresh look at charter schools

As the annual National Charter Schools Week kicks off across the nation this week, all of us with a commitment to a quality U.S. education system must work diligently to elevate the national dialogue surrounding school choice.

Too often the good work charter schools do gets drowned out by misinformation and misunderstandings. This is the wrong way to achieve education reform. Instead, we have to give families real choices by working together to provide a broad range of educational options that best suit the needs of their individual communities, and letting charters play a key role.

Charter Schools Week is an annual, nationwide, celebration of the accomplishments charter schools have achieved across the nation.


It also raises awareness about what charters are and what they’re doing to give families more access to great quality schools. Increasing access to high-quality schools is at the core of “school choice,” and Charter Schools Week is an important time to discuss reform measures that broaden the options of low-income and working class families.

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More importantly, though, Charter Schools Week is a great opportunity to focus on how different players can work together to expand the definition of choice and improve education opportunities for everyone.

School choice should not be a divisive issue. Yet too often, local school districts view alternative publicly funded education options with suspicion.

Public charter schools in particular are accused of bankrupting district school budgets by unfairly siphoning dollars from traditional public schools, or of cherry-picking the highest-performing students.

This kind of finger-pointing, on top of being wrong, creates animosity and division, which hinders making meaningful movement forward on giving families more school options to best suit their child’s needs.

Education reformers, too, can be guilty of embracing an us-versus-them mentality. Many of those working for education reform treat it as an either/or proposition.

Some find appeal in a system dominated by charter schools, with New Orleans and its Recovery School District, which will be entirely charters by next fall, as one extreme.

Others seek to achieve a pre-determined “ideal” balance that can be imposed on all school districts – such as half charters and half traditional public schools – that would ultimately offer hollow choices to students and parents.

Every district is unique, and it’s important that educational options work for the parents and students most impacted by the lack of access to quality education by finding a good blend of effective, longstanding policies and innovative initiatives. Instead of fighting over which single method is best, all the players in each school district have to work together to achieve the right balance for their community.

Newark, New Jersey, a city with 10,000 students historically on wait lists for charters, provides a good example of this kind of collaboration. More than three-quarters of the city’s public charter schools have signed on to One Newark Enrolls, Newark’s new universal enrollment system, which is designed improve access to quality public schools for all students across the city. This initiative broadens school choice for local families, and especially for high-risk or special needs students who are given greater priority.

Education leaders in the city have also unified around the Compact for Newark’s Students. More than 1,500 parents, students and community members have co-signed the Compact so far, committing to five key reform principles that address urgent needs in the city’s education sector. Chief among those principles is recognizing the need for district and charter-sector leaders to engage with parents, students and the community on finding solutions.

This kind of give-and-take among the school district, charter schools and the communities we serve together is admittedly tough, and launching reforms like an innovative enrollment system is bound to have its bumps.

Yet partnerships like these, which offer bold models for school districts across the U.S., don’t simply represent innovations in policy, but also show what is possible when stakeholders truly come together and set aside their parochial differences to try to do what’s right for the children of their community.

Too often, the parents and students most affected by the lack of access to quality schools have no voice. Those of us committed to education reform must remember that we need to engage our key stakeholders and hold other school leaders accountable for the same.

We must also encourage a civil public discourse when issues are controversial. And finally, we must have the courage to set aside our pre-conceived ideas of what the “other side” believes or doesn’t believe, to acknowledge our collective strengths and weaknesses, and to believe that we are stronger together than divided.