Federal Dateline

The President’s Lead on Charters

by Nick Penning

When you first hear those words "charter schools," you’re probably inclined to think someone wants to start public education from scratch or put a sort of special blessing on a particular school or set of schools.

Maybe that’s why this movement has been viewed with such a skeptical eye by many public school leaders. In whose best interest is it to allow states or universities, as charter-granting authorities, to decide who is entitled to start a school? Are they in the best position to create new schools that produce graduating students who have gained more from their educational experiences than their peers in a regular public school?

One wonders how those responsible for running a charter school will respond to a desegregation order. Shouldn’t charters be required to live by the same federal and state civil rights laws as everyone else? And will a charter school be open to all interested students?

Presidential Influence

In his proposed budget for fiscal year 1998 (school year 1998-99), not only is the president’s $100 million for charter schools a 96 percent increase over last year, it is 15 times larger than his first charter schools request of 6 percent.

Jonathan Schnur, the U.S. Education Department’s unofficial charter school expert, recently said, "I’m excited about the direction this could go." He cited the reform efforts begun a decade ago in Minnesota, where open enrollment and public school choice were initiated.

Many readers would probably respond, "Hey, wait a minute! We’ve had open enrollment since ……" The problem is, many of those who make pronouncements at the federal level don’t have real school management experience. As the thinking in Washington goes, if the president talks about it, it must be good for schools so we’ll ask for more money for it.

Schnur, again pointing to Minnesota, spoke with high praise for the Minneapolis "school for dropouts." Does he think all charter schools will have such high motivation?

The Department of Education has widely distributed President Clinton’s tract, "A Call to Action For American Education." After calling for national tests, the president’s fourth point is "Expand choice and accountability in public education." Do those two concepts necessarily flow together?

Later, the document says, "The President has challenged every state to let parents choose the right public school for their children." Whoa! That’s what it says. Now, how is anyone going to run a school system under those kind of conditions?

In a small school system, maybe Ms. Pencilwriter has a reputation as the best first grade teacher in town and the only one at her particular school. What if every parent of an incoming first-grader decided they wanted to be in her classroom? What happens to enrollment in the other two elementary schools in the community? That’s the kind of argument former AASA member Bill Goodling, R-Pa., chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, would use to counter choice advocates.

Many school districts have a system that allows student transfers for various reasons. But is it appropriate for our highest elected official to stand up in the middle of the town square and say, "From now on, every parent will have the right to choose whichever school they want their child to attend"? From a pragmatic standpoint, this invites chaos. A more prudent approach would be to quietly solve situations one at a time.

Wrong Target

Back at the U.S. Education Department, Schnur uses numbers to state his rationale for federal involvement. In 1992, the Minnesota Academy stood alone, but by 1995, about 100 charters were operating. This past year, the number exceeded 500.

He contended that the 25 states that allow charters have "such difference and disparity in charter school laws" that the federal government could provide the initial funding to bring parents and students together to help with "startup and benchmarking." The president has called for 3,000 charter schools, 60 per state, three years from now.

"This is first and foremost about empowering teachers," said Schnur.

One must take issue with that statement if you believe education is really about helping kids learn.

This suggests the kind of wacky ways in which Washington sometimes works. They just can’t leave well enough alone.

Nick Penning is policy analyst at AASA.