imagesLast week, I wrote about Dr. Diane Ravitch, the noted national school reformer who recently was in Kentucky as the recipient of the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award.  I wrote about admiring Dr. Ravitch as a person of considerable intellect and even more courage because she has the ethics to change course on major issues.  In last week’s blog, I talked about high stakes accountability, where I could not agree with Dr. Ravitch more fully.  This week – I want to offer a differing point of view to Dr. Ravitch on the subject of charter schools.

Dr. Ravitch was an early supporter of charter schools as a vehicle to improve student achievement, enhance parental choice, and as an authentic source of innovation.  She now expresses concern about charter schools.  Let me say that charter schools, like almost every “big idea” in education, can be legitimately applauded and supported but it depends on how they are implemented.  Like the old saying – “It’s all in the details.”  There are states with excellent charters because of excellent enabling legislation and leadership.  And there are states with terrible charters because of terrible enabling legislation and leadership.

Some educators whom I greatly admire are opposed to charters.  Other educators whom I admire acknowledge the opportunities that charters present.  And still other educators whom I respect are right smack in the middle. I think our failure in Kentucky is our inability to authentically talk about charters in education circles, in local communities, and in Frankfort.

After all, there is not a wide range of issues around which our 43rd and 44th presidents agree.  Charter schools are that rare exception.  President Bush stated that, “Charter schools empower families; they foster a culture of educational innovation, accountability and excellence; they close the achievement gap.”  President Obama argues that, “America’s success in the 21st century depends on what we do today to reignite the true engine of our economic growth: a thriving middle class; and, making sure our education system provides ladders of opportunity for our sons and daughters. Charter schools are advancing those goals.”

I am not suggesting that my views – or that of Dr. Ravitch – are sacrosanct.  There is plenty of room for discussion when it comes to charters but let’s get the conversation going.

I think there are at least three barriers to delivering charters to Kentucky’s kids.

The first is that arguments for or against charters always go to the extreme.  Defenders of the concept all too frequently describe charters as a perfect silver bullet.  Opponents invariably go on a “house of horror” tour detailing scandals and failures that afflict some charters.  The truth is there are charter schools that are working and charters that are not.  We need to talk about how to create successful charters in Kentucky.

The second barrier includes arguments that just don’t hold up to sound logic. As an example, I often hear that charters will take money from public schools. But I don’t hear people talk about magnet schools or alternative schools taking money from public schools. Charters are just one of many types of public schools that can operate to help our kids.

The third barrier we face is “an either or” mentality, which limits the options that our kids need.  While I’m excited about the new concept of districts of innovation in Kentucky, I would argue that charters offer hope as well.  Each idea is unique but both offer the promise of creative ways for children to achieve.

It’s time to have an authentic conversation about charter schools in Kentucky. It’s time to discuss questions like which models work well and which ones don’t? How might charters help vulnerable kids in our state? What are the risks and opportunities for Kentucky charter schools?

Maybe the best way to conclude is to hear from the 42nd president.  Bill Clinton lays in out pretty simply – “The idea behind charter schools is that not all kids are the same—they have different needs; they need different environments—and it would be a good thing to allow charter schools to be developed which could achieve educational excellence for children who otherwise might be left behind.”

Wherever your views lie on charter schools, I hope we can begin the process of a more open inquiry and a deeper discussion when it comes to charters and Kentucky’s kids.