Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Let’s Avoid “Alternative Facts” When We Talk About School Choice and Charter Schools

Over the weekend, Americans were introduced to a new meme: “alternative facts,” Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s awkward rationalization of the president’s reality-challenged worldview.
Well, this may be great shtick for Saturday Night Live but it’s usefulness ends there. So, on this third day of School Choice Week, I’m reminded of the importance of sticking to verifiable facts.
Here’s one: I’m tired of the charter school wars, particularly the skewing of reality on both sides of the battlefield. For example, in New Jersey we have Mark Weber (aka Jersey Jazzman) who claims that charter operators represent “profit-taking, corruption, lack of transparency.” There’s Princeton-based Save Our Schools-NJ, whose lobbyists insist, contrary to data, that New Jersey charters “performed somewhat worse than comparable public schools.”
I’m equally tired of those who insist that charter schools, which gain greater flexibility in exchange for greater accountability (I’m not touching vouchers here) are the answer to all ills that afflict our public education system.
Those committed to improving student outcomes—and I include all of the above in this category—need to find common ground, a goal made more difficult in the current polarizing environment. But we can locate areas of agreement by respecting the most important stakeholders—families in chronically-failing districts—and searching amidst the flummery for reality-based positions.
Here are a few suggestions specific to New Jersey.
  1. Acknowledge that charters are here to stay. Despite calls by New Jersey’s teachers unions and beholden legislators for a moratorium on new charter school approvals, let’s stipulate that this alternative public school sector will expand in response to student demand. Try telling parents in poor cities that their children will be relegated to, say, Camden High School, where last year 2 percent of students reached proficiency in English language arts and 0 percent reached proficiency in math. Would you send your child there?
  2. Help the traditional public schools too. Let’s also agree that the majority of New Jersey students will always be educated in traditional districts and that, while we have some great schools, student outcomes aren’t good enough. (Fact: Only 42 percent of New Jersey students who took the ACT last year met college-readiness benchmarks.) District and charter collaboration offers a strategy that remains untested in this state. Isn’t it worth a try?
  3. Charters need to serve more kids with special needs. Let’s stipulate that most New Jersey charter schools enroll fewer students with severe disabilities and fewer English-language learners, a practice that must end. But let’s also recognize that this is complicated: As the mom of a son with multiple disabilities, I know that in most cases it takes a large school to muster enough students at similar developmental levels and similar educational needs to create appropriate self-contained or inclusive classrooms and New Jersey charter schools tend to be small. District Child Study Teams, at least initially, steer children towards traditional schools. Also, parents of children with disabilities have the option of enrolling, at district expense (but don’t call them vouchers!), in one of the many private special education schools across the state.
    Nonetheless, charter schools must increase enrollment of special needs children. Some are already doing this and others must do so as well. In fact, the New Jersey Education Commissioner recently approved a charter school in Lakewood specifically for children with behavioral disabilities.
  4. Don’t block sensible ideas. New charter regulations proposed by the Christie administration are sensible: allowing the highest-performing charters to hire teachers and principals without traditional certifications, requiring districts to include charter school students on sports teams and permitting weighted lotteries. No charter school leader would hire or retain ineffective teachers, charter schools aren’t big enough to have their own teams, and weighted lotteries advance precepts we all share.
Let’s eschew Trumpy “alternative facts” and, instead, emulate role models like KIPP-New Jersey parent Tafshier Cosby, who recently noted that “parents of traditional public schools and parents of charter schools agree to disagree, yet they recognize that we’re all in this for the same reason: We want the best for our children.”
After all, that’s why we’re here, right?

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