Thoughts About Charter Schools

After reading the Deseret News’ editorial on charter schools, I felt compelled to write.  

Although I agree with parts of the article, I thought it incomplete.
I have been a member of the State Board of Education for the past sixteen years, am a current liaison to the State Charter School Board, and have visited in numerous neighborhood and charter schools.  Based on that experience I offer five observations:
  • At the outset, I wish to acknowledge my reluctant support for the charter school system, especially in its beginnings.  Although I understand the desire of supporters to encourage growth through competition, I have always been troubled that a State which vastly underfunds our neighborhood schools can afford to support two separate systems.  Turning back is not feasible, and so I seek to help the current system achieve maximum results for all students.
  • The quality of charter schools varies considerably.   The News editorial rightly points out little difference in average charter school scores and neighborhood schools.  But averages can be misleading.  I have discovered some charters schools, led by outstanding educators, are excellent.  I have also seen very weak charter schools.
  • The “vast difference” is an important issue.  Charter schools, by definition, have less oversight than regular public schools.  While the result in the hands of superior educators may be excellent; reduced oversight may more easily lead to abuse in other cases.
  • A strength of traditional public schools is bringing diverse students together.  Such appreciation of diversity is essential to our democracy.  I have always felt a serious danger of the charter school movement is the increased possibility of political, economic, religious, and cultural segments of our society being isolated from one another.  To avoid this problem, Utah law insists charter schools have open enrollment.
  • Observers note inequitable funding is a problem: examination of the facts show lack of equity.  Interestingly, some claim the advantage rests with charter schools; others say it is with neighborhood schools.
Three recommendations:
  • Oversight of charter schools system is critical.  Currently, the State Charter School Board, a group which makes recommendations directly to the State Board, is committed to providing oversight.   I applaud that effort, believing it should be encouraged to weed out the inferior and encourage the strong.
  • Any effort to eliminate open enrollment must be resisted.   To do otherwise would only increase citizen isolation from others.   Our nation is plagued by divisive misunderstanding and lack of tolerance.
  • All schools require adequate and equitable funding.  Objectivity needs to reign to make certain both systems have adequate funding.  Utah must look within to make sure our children’s education is well supported—whether they are in a traditional neighborhood school or a charter school. 
  • If a decision is made to attend a charter school, parents and guardians should exercise great care.  Remember some are good; some are not.  I find this disparity more extreme in charters.  Going to a charter may be a good or bad decision for your child.