November 22, 2014
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Why we can use charter schools
John Hazen White, Jr.

Rhode Island spends a lot of money on public education (more per student than many other states spend) for generally poor results, especially in schools located within our inner cities. Students who drop out and don’t graduate are just the tip of the iceberg; many of their peers who do graduate are poorly educated and need another year or more of remedial training to catch up to where they should have been at graduation time. Many of course do not get that remedial education and don’t move forward with additional schooling at a higher level. Any state with a poorly educated workforce will find it hard to compete for employers who need exactly the opposite – students proficient in basic math, science and English. As we continue to lose jobs here in the Ocean State, this education problem becomes of even greater concern.

That’s why a process of transformation is taking place these days, pushed by the U.S. Department of Education with its Race to the Top competition and templates for reform for states to employ. Under the leadership of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, we are at last revamping a public education model based on an outmoded industrial formula into a system where teacher performance and merit, and not just seniority, come first, among other reform practices.

Now add charter schools to the situation as a public education alternative. Charter schools are essentially a response to a public education system that too often has failed its students. Parents who cannot afford a Catholic or non-denominational private school education for their children look to the chance of a charter school opportunity like a rescue lifeline. Generally speaking, charter schools perform well. Students often end up achieving higher scores than they would in a municipal public school and they are more motivated to do well.

Charter schools are not welcomed by everyone in the community, however. Vested interests in the public school model, particularly the custodians of that model – teacher unions – oppose charter schools on principle, arguing that in practice they’re not what they claim to be and they take financial resources away from the public school system. We’re seeing this debate going on right now locally, as an application to establish two new elementary level charter schools in Providence has developed into a fierce back and forth. To opponents, allowing a charter school to operate in their community generates the fear and loathing that allowing a Wal-Mart into a local economy can cause. A previous application to allow a charter school in Cranston was defeated last year.

Also weighing in are parents who oppose charter schools. One might, at first glance, consider it odd that parents in a community with struggling, under-performing public schools would take such a stance, but parents have already demonstrated that they can be the most vociferous of opponents. The reasons behind this varied: they buy the argument that the presence of a charter school only serves to hurt public schools; they believe in the primacy of traditional public schools; they distrust for-profit-based education; they believe that charter schools’ student selection processes (application or lottery) don’t end up serving the needs of the most disadvantaged students, or they simply don’t like change.

Somehow these arguments pale in comparison to the pressing need that exists to shake-up our primary and secondary public education system. I personally believe that if an alternative educational model, like a charter school, is available to us, we should use it. As an employer, I need well-educated workers, so I am naturally open to utilizing the best means to produce them. There’s nothing inherently wrong or unfair about introducing competition into the educational model – competition in education, as in business, is good. That’s why so many of our community leaders support charter schools.

Remember, too, that charter schools do not operate outside the oversight of educational authorities. Charter schools are licensed and then regulated. A charter school that fails to deliver the goods for its students will not operate that way for too long, and it can be closed down or operated anew by a new provider.

We need to strip away the falsehoods and fear promoted in opposing charter schools. Hopefully, the state Board of Regents, which is weighing the application for two new charter schools to be operated by Achievement First, will listen to the mayors of Cranston, Warwick, North Providence and Providence, as well as Governor Chafee and a host of supportive parents, and approve them in March.


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