This post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in The Lexington Herald-Leader. You can view it online here.
With last week’s legislative hearing and town hall forums, we heard important discussions about the pros and cons of bringing public charter schools to Kentucky.
I continue to be baffled that the public charter conversation is characterized by partisan dissent in Kentucky as that is certainly not the case nationally.
There are few issues around which our 42nd, 43rd and 44th presidents agree. The fact that presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama all see charters as a win for the economy, for families and for young people should send a compelling message to Kentuckians.
So why is there such a divide on this issue in the commonwealth when public charter schools are such a common sense and established option for kids who need alternatives to traditional public schools?
The major barrier is extremism from both proponents and opponents of charters.
Defenders all too frequently describe charters as a silver bullet. Opponents invariably go on a “house of horror” tour detailing scandals and failures that afflict some charters.
Both are right and wrong. There are charter schools in other states that are working, undergirded by excellent legislation and committed on-the-ground leadership from teachers and parents. And there are charters that are failing kids because of inadequate legislation and/or lack of effective leadership.
So let me be clear — the kind of charter schools Kentucky’s kids need must be driven by a proven national framework.
And what would that framework look like?
First, we must be unyieldingly clear: Charter schools are public schools. They cannot charge tuition and must be open to any child who wants to attend.
We are talking about public charters being administered exclusively by nonprofit organizations so the threat of privatization within Kentucky is not on the table.
Public charters run by non-profits is a proven model to achieve strong results for children, and that should be the only focus in this debate.
We are talking about charters ascribing to the same rigorous accountability standards as do all other public schools in Kentucky. We are talking about charters applying the same professional standards to staff as any public school. In other words, we are only talking about the kind of public charter school model that is already making a positive difference for kids in many other states.
The second barrier is the argument that charters will take money from public schools. By definition, charters are public schools; therefore, that line of attack rings hollow. Just as alternative schools are public schools — and therefore are never accused of taking money from public schools — charter schools are another public option to traditional public schools. Like all public schools, they need to be funded in an adequate and equitable manner and need to be available to all students. Period.
Another barrier we face is an either/or mentality, which limits the options that our kids have to succeed. This line of thinking asserts, “You are either for traditional public schools or you are for charters.” It is a straw man argument.
We need to strengthen every public school system. At the same time, if you believe in parental and teacher leadership, and if you believe in divergent ways to boost student achievement, then charters are an important added element in supporting kids. My wife and I will have five grandchildren in three different public schools as of 2015-16. As retired educators and grandparents, we will enthusiastically support those three public schools where our grandkids attend.
At the same time, I can vigorously argue that supporting quality public charters is a means of supporting public education as a whole.
As Kentuckians, we should reject the national and state voices that polarize the issue for their own interests. Instead, lend an ear to the diverse chorus of public charter school advocates, ranging from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce to civil rights and faith leaders, from Education Commissioner Terry Holliday to on-the-ground groups like YouthBuild.
For the sake of open inquiry, for the sake of deliberate governance and, most of all, for the sake of our kids, Kentucky legislators in both chambers — and every candidate for governor — should engage in a robust deliberation about public charter schools.