Placards carried by unionized teachers during their recent strikes in Los Angeles, Oakland, California, and West Virginia were a study in misdirection. “On Strike for smaller class sizes.” “On Strike for more student support.” “On Strike for a living wage.”
In reality, the primary motivation behind the strikes was organized opposition to charter schools, which have become an increasingly popular alternative to traditional public schools.
The teachers’ unions are hardly alone. In many states and jurisdictions, virtually the entire education establishment — school boards, superintendents, teachers’ unions and even the universities where future teachers are trained — seems to be allied against charters.
The only “interest group” that doesn’t seem to be opposed to charter schools is parents. That’s why many charter schools have long waiting lists.
Some 3.2 million children in 43 states and the District of Columbia are now attending charter schools. By law, these schools are tuition-free and open to all, regardless of race, creed, national origin, religion, ancestry, or physical or intellectual ability or disability.
As the Department of Education notes, the contracts — or charters — the schools have with local and/or state authorities exempt them “from certain state or local rules and regulations.”
In return for flexibility and autonomy afforded by these exemptions, the schools must meet educational accountability and financial standards. If the standards aren’t met, the schools can lose their charters and are shut down. This remedy for nonperformance is in stark contrast to traditional public schools, which often limp along for years and years without being held accountable for their failures.
I became involved in education by accident. I’m an electrical engineer by profession. After establishing and leading the bioengineering section at the University of Texas’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and later starting (and selling) a business, I retired and volunteered as a science teacher at Wesley Elementary School, a low-income, predominantly African-American school in Houston.
Wesley’s then principal, the late Thaddeus Lott, taught me what works in education: The proper curriculum executed with discipline, order, high expectations and committed teachers and administrators. His results were more than impressive.
I later moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, where — inspired by Dr. Lott — I’ve helped establish four charter schools. They have 2,200 students and employ 305 teachers and staff. All four are what’s known as Title 1 schools, meaning 40 percent or more of their students are economically disadvantaged.
Three of the four schools are among the top-ranked in their respective counties — despite the fact that the state tests required of our students are based on the Common Core standards used in most traditional public schools, not the classical, direct instruction curriculum our schools use. Our fourth school, Douglass Academy — named for 19th-century civil rights icon Frederick Douglass — has been outperforming its neighboring traditional public schools and is on its way to becoming a top-ranked school in its own right.
Critics of charters complain about many things: that they’re responsible for “re-segregating” district schools, that they’re “skimming” the best students from the traditional public schools, that they’re hurting district school finances, and that the system is rigged in our favor, because of the “flexibility and autonomy” we enjoy.
A visit to a charter school will quickly belie these assertions. Demographically, most charter schools mirror the communities in which they’re located, as ours do. In fact, a Department of Education analysis a few years ago found that charter schools nationally educate a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students (those qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch) than traditional public schools.
Regarding finances, while funding formulas vary, in North Carolina, like most states, charters receive less funding per student for operations than the traditional public schools and receive no funding whatsoever for facilities.
And if it’s the flexibility and autonomy that bother our critics, they should seek to eliminate the “one size fits all” rules and regulations that prevent traditional schools from innovating — as charters do — rather than lobbying against charters, depriving families of educational choice.
They also may evaluate whether they’re ready to submit to strict academic accountability standards. As I mentioned before, and it bears repeating: If a charter school doesn’t perform well, parents can move their kids elsewhere and the school can be required to close.
Charter schools aren’t the problem: They’re part of the solution. Instead of fighting with us, the education establishment should study our methods and copy what we’re doing.