Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Charter School Echoes. It didn't take long for the dust to get kicked up after last Tuesday's legislative hearing on charter schools. Sean Kershaw, Executive Director of the Citizen's League, wrote the editorial for the StarTribune (at the link below), weighing in on the issues discussed at the hearing.

Kershaw Commentary: http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentary/35571339.html?elr=KArksc8P:Pc:U0ckkD:aEyKUiD3aPc:_Yyc:aUU.

I want to start my response by saying I don't have any particular problem with the concept of charter schools. In my waning days on legislative staff nearly twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to sit on a couple of working groups that discussed expanding school choice to include the ability of school districts--and back then, it was only school districts in the discussion--to create charter schools. Through these discussions, I developed a healthy respect for many of those who advocate for charter schools that remains to this day.

But what is troubling in this whole episode is a reluctance on the part of charter school proponents to recognize that Myron Orfield, the Director of the University of Minnesota Law School's Institute on Race an Poverty, is more reporting facts than making value judgments about the performance of charter schools and how the enrollment patterns in charter schools are exacerbating racial isolation. Where Orfield appear to make a judgment is in the embrace of current laws pertaining to the desegregation rule.

I am not going to weigh in on that because I can see both sides of the argument. I have never believed that creating and maintaining racial balances will, in and of themselves, promote greater achievement. If it did, all we'd have to do is get out the ol' slide rule and watch the magic happen. And I can understand the frustration of the minority community with a system that sometimes appears to be more intent on developing student ratios than promoting student learning and seek to have more control over their community's education through the establishment of charter schools. The testimony of Minneapolis Councilman Don Samuels, Eric Mahmoud, and former St. Paul Councilman Bill Wilson bore that out and the achievement levels in the schools in which they are directly involved are promising. Unfortunately, many charter schools aren't doing nearly as well and are often rife with management issues.

Where I start to get a little bent out of shape is when people seemingly give charter schools a pass on their achievement scores. The law is clear. It's not like Orfield was at the State Fair handing out "Charter School Criticism on a Stick" in the same way that the Minnesota Department of Education was handing out school scores "on a stick" in 2003. His report simply reported raw data and made similar judgments regarding charter school performance that are made when public school test scores are released and usually accompanied by damning headlines at every daily newspaper in the state.

What is particularly maddening is that charter school supporters tend to pull out the same explanations mainline schools use to explain whatever difficulties they are having. It just seems when the explanations come from public schools, they are viewed as excuses while the same reasons, when cited by a charter school, are met with an understanding nod of the head. There needs to be, and at least Kershaw admits this, a single, meaningful standard of measurement developed that will look at student performance realistically and support further achievement in a dynamic manner as opposed to simply taking a snapshot of student achievement levels on a given day.

Three consecutive administrations have placed a lot of stock in charter schools (less so in the Ventura Administration, but heavily in the Carlson and Pawlenty Administrations) and have promoted them, sometimes at the expense of the mainline public school system. Programs like charter school lease aid have produced some questionable decisions and have cost the state a considerable amount of money. Rules relating to sponsorship of charter schools have been loosened, allowing the establishment of some charter schools that should not have been created and allowing charters to be created without having a formal agreement from the school district in which they are located. Management of some charter schools has been nothing short of atrocious. There can be no excuses when problem like this arise, even from the most ardent charter school supporters. This isn't "poor little charters" being descended upon by critics from the vicious education cartel. It's a matter of following the law and meeting expectations.

There desperately needs to be a truce here. Continuing an "us vs. them" in this area serves no one's, especially the students in all Minnesota schools, district or otherwise, purposes. Charter schools are public schools with public school students, just like those students in area learning centers and alternative programs. In the discussions surrounding measurement of student achievement, there are threads of an agreement beginning to reveal themselves. This could be the opportunity that will, if not eliminate the tension, at least put everyone on the same plane in terms of operation and measurement.

MSBA Delegate Assembly. I forgot my camera, so I didn't get any quality candids of the many SEE board members in attendance at the 2008 MSBA Delegate Assembly. It was nice to see as many of you as I did run into and the discussion of the resolutions was interesting.

There were two positive developments during the proceedings. In her address to the delegates on Sunday evening, Representative Mindy Greiling (DFL-Roseville), chief author of the PS Minnesota bill, announced that increased equalization will be part of the comprehensive funding reform bill she intends to introduce early in the 2009 Legislative Session. HF 4178/SF 3828--the comprehensive funding reform bill introduced in 2008--did not include increased equalization although both authors voiced support for the concept.

The other development was the passage, by the delegates, of a resolution urging support for the comprehensive funding reform bill. While some may view this as a "no-brainer," there are concerns from some regarding elements of the proposed reform and it is very expensive. At any rate, on a vote of 94-12, the delegates voiced (more accurately, punched their support on their voting keypad) support for the bill. Hoo-rah.

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