Friday, August 04, 2006

Charter schools are good for

Students. It would be best and easier to always answer resoundingly, "students." Not the case. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a piece on the battle for the purpose of charter schooling and proposed lack of direction. Author Sarah Carr identifies the solution to what she sees as charter schooling's adrift-at-sea personality. Carr sees a need for oversight and innovation.

More oversight and innovation may help a "disoriented" Milwaukee charter movement, among other districts and states with gobs of charter schools, but I think the most provocative idea in Carr's piece is the suggestion that many charters are contributing to a feeling of doubt or disorientation not because they aren't good schools, but because they don't look any different than traditional public schools. Long for: why charter if you look and act the same as all the others?

Charters exist for any number of reasons as included comments/questions from Ed Sector and Ed Trust in Carr's piece suggest. Of course the quotes don't sum up a person's or an organization's position, but they do help illustrate the myriad "uses" charters may have. The quote from Ed Sector

"what is the ultimate vehicle of accountability for a school? Is it parents or is it government?"

suggests that it's accountability (to the parent v. to the government) that matters at the heart of charter philosophy. The quote from Ed Trust

One wants to use charter schools to do a better job educating children, particularly poor ones. The other camp simply wants "freedom from everything, from regulations, from state dictates."

suggests two sides of different coins at the heart of charter philosophy: disadvantaged children v. Individualism turned egoism (in the Tocquevillian sense).

This is just the tip of an iceberg of reasons for charters, or what I like to think of as roots in the philosophy of charter schooling. But it is interesting and probably worthwhile to consider charter schools as instruments of deviation, or the product of a series of waivers and exemptions.

Criticizing charters for not doing enough differently from traditional public schools seems like a waste of energy. However, the criticisms expose a tension and a reluctance for a reform that in some cases doesn't seem to do much. This is a problem only if: A) you hate charters and/or B) chartering schools requires a lot more effort and expense than establishing schools through traditional means. For me, the worth of a charter must be measured by what it does, not by what it doesn't not do differently.


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