This article was originally featured in The Post & Courier.
It is said that academic politics are so intense because the stakes are so low. But the stakes are sky-high in the ongoing, heated discourse about school choice.
Education advocates consider the issue a battle, with charter schools as the enemy. Or traditional public schools as the culprit. Or public school partnerships with private entities as a slippery slope toward the evisceration of public education.
It’s always good to analyze the way schools are performing and to look for ways to help them perform better. Magnet and charter schools need to be part of that discussion as do traditional public schools. School choice has proven to be one reasonable answer to a complex problem. And public schools are the basis for the nation’s education.
Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has put choice in the forefront. Teacher unions have all but declared war. Mrs. DeVos, a longtime champion for school choice in Michigan, supports controversial vouchers and tax credits. And indeed, Mr. Trump has proposed a $20 billion federal voucher program that students could use to attend public or private schools.
Mrs. DeVos also supports virtual schools, magnet schools, homeschooling and charter schools — all subjects that have been discussed locally for years.
Ten public charter schools operate in the Charleston County School District (CCSD) — more than any other district in the state, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. That works out to one student in every 10 attending a charter school. And that indicates that a significant number of families want something that traditional CCSD schools do not offer.
It only makes sense for CCSD and those semi-independent public schools to work together and learn from each other. It shouldn’t be a battle at all. The ultimate goal for all educators should be to produce students who are prepared to be successful in life.
There is nevertheless hostility locally, as there is nationally. Just before the November school board elections, an unidentified individual or group produced a mailer calling West Ashley candidate Priscilla Jeffery a far-left extremist who opposes school choice.
Ms. Jeffery, who was elected, has said she has reservations about the accessibility of choice schools for many children. But she has also invited people who differ from her to have a respectful conversation to clear the air. She has a point worth the consideration of all: What should be done for children who have no way to get to the school of their choice?
Some have also criticized the partnership between CCSD and Meeting Street Schools, even though students at Meeting Street Schools @ Brentwood Elementary, which replaced a failing school, consistently score above average. One aim of the school is to be a model for other schools serving under-resourced communities.
But detractors say the methodology won’t translate to other schools without matching the money Brentwood receives. In addition to its regular public school funding, Meeting Street Schools provides funds that allow for more teachers, and other extras. They see little or no benefit from studying Brentwood — an unfortunately narrow outlook.
An advocacy group called SouthCarolinaCAN is focusing on holding schools and districts accountable for student achievement and has met with resistance from teachers. The organization wants schools and districts to be graded — A through F, or 0 to 100. They contend it is important for parents to have a true gauge of a school’s success so that they can make sound decisions for their children. Indeed, SouthCarolinaCAN plans to offer parents a program whereby they learn about how their school system performs, what charter schools are and how to advocate for their children.
But teacher advocacy groups don’t like schools and districts to be graded that way because students, and teachers, could be stigmatized unfairly. The S.C. Department of Education has similar concerns. CCSD is to be commended for constructing a way to rate schools based on a variety of measures, including test results, student attendance rates and school climate as perceived by parents. The methodology is to be tested in 2017.
Charleston County needs strong public schools that ensure every child is offered the chance to get a sound education. And those whose children flourish in an environment different from what the school district offers deserve a chance to find it in charter schools.
It doesn’t have to be a battle. It shouldn’t be a battle.