Being in public education for over 30 years, I had always viewed charter schools as the public school enemy #1, a threat to those of us working hard to be all things to all children regardless of the plethora of challenges they brought with them when they walked through our doors. If you had asked me if charter schools were good or bad for public education, my answer would have been a definitive - bad! What I have come to realize is that I was asking the wrong question. The right question is, Charter schools – good or bad for our children? Framed that way, the answer is a definitive - good!
In public education, we have got to get past the notion that charter schools are somehow a threat to public education. In fact, they may be one of the only ways to save it. How, you ask?
While we have been talking about transforming education since the earth cooled, for the most part, schools still look and function pretty much like they have for decades. Sure, we’ve gone from rows to table groups and blackboards to white boards, but the basic structure of schools remains unchanged. That might be fine if the world weren’t changing so quickly. The uncertainty of what our current students will need to know in the future makes an even stronger case to examine our current (or should I say past) practices and come to the realization that we need to do things differently.
Change in institutions has been historically slow, painfully so at most times. Generally speaking, the larger the organization, the greater the resistance and the slower the process when trying to do things differently. Implementing even relatively minor changes in a public school setting can take years, mindful of involving all constituents in the planning cycle through the use of forums such as focus groups. After months (or years) of iterations, compromises, pilots, feedback, data reviews, etc., we find the change had little impact on student achievement, as it really wasn’t that big of a “change” to begin with. So can anyone transform schooling, as we have known it?
Charter schools present a structure and a culture where innovation is embraced and where significant change can be more rapidly implemented. As such, charter schools can be an incubator for innovation, a lab school if you will, where real changes can be implemented, quickly evaluated, and disseminated widely not only to their sponsoring districts, but across the globe. Charters can be the risk takers, the outside the box thinkers, the “we can figure this thing out folks” without the constraints of going through the laborious, and sometimes painful process of implementing change in school systems. Do we really want to transform education? Look to charters. They should be viewed as the best friends of public education, not the enemy.