For too long, Tennessee's legislature has withheld the promise of charter schools from parents with children in failing schools.
Now the federal government will leave the state few options: "reconstitution" (firing ineffective teachers and administrators); private management; state takeover of failing schools; and public charter schools.Charters would appear to be the most benign of the options.
As U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige said to state lawmakers in his February 5th visit to Nashville: "The time for change and support of charter schools is now."
Charter schools are growing quickly because the present public school system is outdated and often fails to deliver an excellent education to students. Many educators liken traditional public education to a factory, in which unformed children are fed into one side of the factory, teachers slave away at the production line, and complete, well-educated children are popped out of the other side.
Our schools have centralized management in district offices and engage in collective bargaining through teachers' unions, exactly the model that factories adopted 100 years ago. Historically, this method was seen as an efficient means of mass-producing education. However, the current system does not adapt easily to change. Schools are rarely closed because of poor academic achievement. Because of this lack of accountability, schools continue to operate long after their educational outcomes decay. The educational establishment's factory system poses a major impediment to school reform.
Charter schools are public schools of choice that are granted a certain amount of autonomy, as determined by the individual state law and the local charter. Charter schools are then emancipated to make decisions in relation to the structure, curriculum, and educational emphasis of the school. In return for this independence, charter schools are held accountable for the academic achievement of the students in the charter school. The school faces closure if academic achievement or performance standards are not met.
Traditionally, education-reform critics use a three-pronged strategy. They try to block pending reform legislation. When education reformers prevail, these critics take them to court, not just once, but over and over. Then they try to smother education reform victories through regulation. The "soft bigotry of low expectations" simply cannot be tolerated in our state.
Public charter schools are motivating other school systems across the nation to improve the delivery of educational services. In addition, research indicates charter schools can have an unintended positive impact and may contribute to statewide reform efforts that had no formal connection to charters, such as new systems of school accountability, drives for site-based management, and changes in school financing practices.
Charters have taken care of underserved students, saved capital costs by taking overflow students in growing districts, and even offered options to chronically disgruntled parents.
Reforming and improving Tennessee's education system is of utmost importance in our society. Education will remain a focus of statewide policy debates and political campaigns. Charter schools offer a bridge from the business-as-usual mentality toward a more free-market approach favored by reformers. When we set high standards for our schools and our children, and when we give our schools and our children the support they need and hold them accountable for results, public education can get the job done.
Charter school proponents confront a daunting assignment. The opponents are tenacious, relentless, single-minded, and well-financed. They have a highly developed infrastructure at the local, state, and national level, and they focus on a single goal: to stop charter schools.
If lawmakers and policymakers confront obstructionists, they must be just as resolute. Improving educational opportunities for all children remains paramount to reforming education and ending a cycle of failure that many children endure throughout their educational experience.
J.C. Bowman is director of education policy for the Tennessee Institute for Public Policy, a Nashville-based think tank.