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When charters take liberties

Sunday, November 29th, 2009



The most difficult thing about a great idea is to find the way to translate concept into reality. When it comes to education, the road to success has forever been paved with good intentions. Some ideas have met with great success but many more have failed, leaving students in limbo. That’s what WHYY’s Chris Satullo explores in his weekly audio column Center Square.

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Experiments are vital. They lead to new knowledge and innovation.

But when your flasks explode, and a foul smell wafts through the lab, it might be time to review the protocols.

I speak of course about the charter school movement in Pennsylvania.

I love the ideas behind the alternative public schools known as charters. Let passionate educators test their ideas. Give kids in failing schools a fresh chance. Offer middle class parents a reason to stick with public education.

But 12 years into the charter experiment across Pennsylvania, the flasks keep exploding. The smoke of scandal won’t fade.

The CEO of the once-acclaimed Philadelphia Academy sits in jail, having skimmed $1 million in taxpayer funds. That’s just the worst of many troubling situations.

Meanwhile, even-handed studies of charters find scant evidence that they do markedly better than traditional schools at fostering learning.

And yet… and yet… the charter movement has also given rise to places such as the Mastery Charters of Philadelphia, which fulfill the promise of their name for a diverse crew of kids. Innovative, themed schools such as the Charter High School for Architecture and Design flourish.

It’s not that charters can’t work. It’s that the movement harbors too many ideologues who will brook no criticism of their pet project; they seek to shield these PUBLIC schools from pesky questions about low test scores or misuse of public funds. To them the mere existence of charters is success enough.

Here’s the sad irony: The ideologues’ aversion to rational oversight enables the very scandals that soil charters’ good name.

Pennsylvania’s charter law is weak, because such ideologues shaped it. We are now seeing the spotty results.

Charters can be founded either by saints or charlatans, geniuses or kooks.

What we need are new rules that will still enable smart dreamers to build something splendid, but prevent the schemers from doing anything sordid.

Predictably, the scandals are fueling momentum for new rules. The question is whether this legislative reaction will turn into an overreaction.  Charter advocates may be a bit paranoid, but charters do have real enemies – teachers unions and some superintendents – who’d like to see them shrivel up and die.

Charters need better oversight, but not a straitjacket.


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