Baby steps for school choice

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The GOP's takeover of the Kentucky legislature last month means that charter school legislation is finally coming to Kentucky.

After a day-long study session on the topic last week, the Kentucky Board of Education, where I serve as a member, offered recommendations to lawmakers for provisions a charter law might include. I was disappointed the board was not ready to endorse the concept of charters outright, and I have some personal disagreements with the set of principles the board adopted, but overall I see the decision as a tiny victory for school choice.

The education establishment has finally accepted the fact that charter schools are going to be a reality here. But the debate around charters and choice is really just beginning, and the Board's discussion suggests the dividing lines are not just over the technical dimensions of policy, but also philosophical perspectives over what education is for and how schooling is delivered.

The board is made up of six members appointed by previous Democrat Gov. Steve Beshear and five appointed by current Republican Governor Matt Bevin and sworn in last June (including me). As late as September, I assumed any board discussion about charters would probably be a long way off, but at our October meeting, one of the Beshear appointees suggested that the board has a responsibility to be informed about the topic and possibly weigh in on the issue, and so a study session was planned for late November.

The election, in which Republicans won control of the state House of Representatives, created additional momentum. Last week's work session included an overview of the complex research on charter schools. That research makes it clear that, while it's difficult to detect large overall differences in student achievement between charter and district schools, the most disadvantaged students do seem to benefit academically from attending charter schools, sometimes dramatically.

I came away cautiously hopeful that the board might be willing to support charter schools with certain conditions. The commissioner's office drafted a set of potential charter school practices that the board might endorse for consideration.

It became immediately clear when our discussion started, however, that some board members were not prepared to support charter schools. Several voiced criticisms or concerns about the concept, while others seemed eager to debate the specifics in the commissioner's proposed recommendations.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, and I saw no value in trying to argue with board members and persuade them to change their minds. As I said in the meeting, I have written and spoken enough words on this topic to fill a book and if anyone wants to know why I support charters they can easily find my reasons.

There is a time to fight, and a time to seek common ground, and my goal was to identify those areas where board members could collectively establish consensus. If we accept that charter schools are going to be in Kentucky, can we agree to some principles of practice that we are willing to support?

After lengthy discussion and debate over multiple amendments, the board accepted the draft document provided by the commissioner's office, which covers a broad array of technical components in charter school legislation, including who may authorize, who may apply to start a charter school, how they will be financed, and how they will be held accountable.

The vast majority of these principles would be recognized as best practices by charter school advocates, though there were a few items I personally disagree with. Some examples:

Authorizers


I believe that allowing several different entities to authorize charter schools encourages a wide variety of innovative charter school models serving a more diverse array of students. Some board members were concerned, however, that too many authorizers would create problems with accountability and oversight, and felt strongly that the board itself should have over-arching authority over all schools in the state, district or charter.

Applicants

The statement of principles stipulates that charter school operators should be nonprofit. I don't have a problem with for-profit school operators per se. My family's pediatrician makes a profit every time we see her, and I'm happy for her to do so as long as she keeps my children healthy and makes them well.

When she doesn't, we'll find another pediatrician. But I do respect the concern that for-profit entities might not always operate with the best interests of children in mind (for the record, only about 13 percent of charter school operators nationwide are for-profit entities anyway; and government and non-profit entities routinely make decisions that aren't always in the best interest of children).

Teacher certification

Charter schools should not be made to hire fully certified teachers. Freeing them from the burdens of the certification regime will allow charters to take better advantage of community members who may have content expertise, but not the requisite state credentials. And I'd like to see a greater flexibility in teacher certification requirements for all schools. But if one believes there is a strong link between certification and teacher quality, then I can see how one might be concerned about this topic.

I chose not to dig in and fight my fellow board members over any of these issues. I believe we would have deadlocked and failed to arrive at anything we could have collectively agreed on. Even had my position prevailed on a split vote (a long shot at best), it seemed more prudent to emphasize our areas of agreement, especially given that these are purely recommendations for lawmakers to consider.

The final judgment about what will be law is not the board's. In the end, I was genuinely proud that board members had a civil and productive discussion and exercised their responsibility to speak on the topic. I don't doubt the sincerity of any of these fine people, include those with whom I disagree. Our differences, I think, are in terms means, not ends.

And yet, there is a serious philosophical divide beneath the surface of the debate around school choice. The language of those who oppose choice reflects a strongly-held assumption that our current system of delivering education is the only or best way to do so.

It's not that charter school opponents are fixated on denying parents a choice of who educates their own children. It's that we've created a system that, by its design, is supposed to meet the needs of every single family delivered by one provider: the local district schools. And those who are emphatically devoted to this system will, by definition, have to oppose parental choice.

There may have been legitimate reasons for creating this system in the past, but I would argue it cannot meet its mission. No school, no matter how good, can meet the needs of every single child. It functions as a government-run monopoly, which will inevitably be characterized by inefficiencies and a tendency toward one-size-fits-all solutions that will never satisfy the multitude of individual learning needs presented by our diverse student populations. It leads to inevitable battles for control and power in which there must be education winners and losers. And it requires byzantine systems of oversight and accountability to ensure a modicum of quality and which has no realistic chance of reaching the levels of student learning our new economy and culture demands. Above all, it is unjust: low-income students suffer the most from its weaknesses, while affluent families can use their resources to game the system to get access to the best schools or bypass it altogether for tuition-based education.

It doesn't have to be this way. Education is a public good and should be generously funded according to the value it brings our society both economically and culturally. But that funding should be primarily understood as a benefit for students, and only secondarily for the institutions that serve them.

Those who support choice need to be clear about this: in arguing that education dollars should follow the students to the schools of their family's choice, we are directly challenging the one-size-fits-all system that is taken for granted by so many, especially those whose livelihoods and identities are bound up in the current structures of education delivery.

We should respect the fear and concern that such a challenge evokes in those who have never conceived of delivering education differently, but we should not shy away from acknowledging the principles and values that under gird our belief in choice: that parents know best what is in the interest of their children, that multiple institutions can effectively provide a truly "public" education, and that a lightly-regulated system of accountability can ensure quality and equity for all.

It's not a radical idea. We have similar structures of consumer choice when it comes to other public goods like higher education (think Pell grants, the GI Bill, and federally subsidized student loans), health care, and food security. We don't say that we are "draining money" from WKU because a student chooses to use her Pell grant at Brescia University, nor do we assume that funding public universities precludes us from offering supports to financially needy students to attend the post-secondary institution of their choice. But Americans don't tend to think about P-12 education in this way. They should, and it's our job to make those connections and to gently but boldly challenge the system that isn't accomplishing its goals.

Even in a choice environment, I believe, for a variety of reasons, the vast majority of parents are going to continue to choose their local district schools. Choice doesn't fix everything about education, and I don't know anyone who thinks it will. And so I remain absolutely committed to pursuing whatever strategies are needed to promote high-quality schools, whether public, charter, parochial, or independent and giving all students full access to these options.

I welcome the chance to continue working with my fellow Board members, even when we disagree about strategy, to advance those goals.

Gary Houchens is a member of the Kentucky Board of Education and a Western Kentucky University education professor.

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