Liv Finne wrote a response for the Washington Policy Center blog and Melissa has responded in turn.
My thinking on this continues to evolve. Right now I'm at a place where I have no interest in the question. The discussion follows predictable patterns:
I argue against charter schools saying: "There nothing that a charter school can do for students that a public school cannot do. Whatever wonderful thing that a charter school does could also be done in a public school."
The charter school advocate responds: "Perhaps. But the public schools don't do those things."
And I come right back with: "And neither do most charters. The vast majority of them operate no differently from traditional public schools."Instead of looking for disagreement, we could look for common ground. There's plenty. Education activists and sincere Education Reformers (not the insincere ones who are just trying to bust unions and reduce their tax bills) agree that the real obstacles that keep schools from working better for students are not the students, the families or the teachers. The real obstacles to the change we need are administrators and bureaucrats in the principal's office, at district headquarters, and in state education agencies, who don't allow us to give students the support they need and a legislature that refuses to pay what it will really cost to give students the support they need. The charter school path is to bypass those obstacles by working outside of those bureaucracies and find private funding. The public school path is to reform those administrators, bureaucrats and regulatory agencies so they provide support instead of suppression and to demand full funding from the State. Both paths have merit, but the argument - whether to fix the problem or bypass it - is a silly distraction. We need to acknowledge the expediency of bypassing it. They need to face up to the ultimate need to fix it.
The ownership and governance of a school has almost nothing to do with what is happening in the classroom. We need to take the focus off the ownership and governance and put it on the classroom. I don't care about whether the school is private, charter, or public. I don't care if it is traditional or alternative. I only care if it is a good school.
I've posted this comment to the Washington Policy Center blog:
Submitted by Charlie Mas on Monday, May 14, 2012.
When you look at the bigger picture - and I would really like it if people did look at the bigger picture - the whole Charter school debate is a silly distraction.
The ownership and the governance of the school has little, if anything, to do with the education in the classroom. I think it's time for us to stop arguing over whether we should have charter schools or not and turn our attention where it belongs: to the actions we need to take to have good schools.
I used to participate in the debate. I have contributed to the effort to keep charter schools out of Washington. I tell people all of the time that there is nothing that a charter school can do for students that a public school cannot do. That's certainly true. Of course, I would have to admit that the public schools often don't use their license to do the things that they should be doing. So they could be doing the things that the best charter schools do, but they don't. That's a sad fact, and it is the strongest argument that the charter school advocates have. Of course, it is also true for the charter schools; most of them don't operate much differently from traditional public schools. And that is the tragic flaw in the argument in favor of charter schools. So the ownership and governance of the school - public, private, or charter - is not any assurance that it will be a good school. It's hardly even an indicator.
I'm not interested in the charter school debate anymore. It's a distraction. I'm interested in putting the focus on the elements that define a good school and removing the obstacles that keep schools - all schools - from being good schools.
What's a good school?
A good school is one that sets and maintains high standards for all students. A good school believes that all students (except the few with cognitive disabilities) are capable of working at a developmentally appropriate grade level.
At a good school, students who are struggling to meet those standards are provided with the support they need to reach the standards. The struggle is typically due to factors outside the students' control. These are children; they don't control much. Some lack the necessary preparation, exposure to wider world, or stimulation. Some lack the necessary motivation. Some, however, lack food, healthcare, freedom from fear, or a suitable study space.
At a good school the students are seen as individuals, each with their own unique set of needed supports.
At a good school all students - whether they are working at, below, or beyond grade level - are taught at the frontier of their knowledge and skills.
Those are the hallmarks of a good school. The ownership and governance of the school doesn't determine whether it is a good school or not. The leadership does. The culture of the school does. The dedication and the strength of the community's belief does. And, let's not kid ourselves, the budget does as well. Providing students with the needed interventions costs money, real money.
I could jump into this fray and say snarky things - believe me, I could; I'm really good at it - but to join in this argument on either side would only serve to validate a worthless debate.
Ms Westbrook has, I believe, the most widely read education blog in the state. Thousands of people, including nearly all of the education activists around here, look to her for information and analysis. Wouldn't we all rather see her spending her resources to identify and remove the barriers (including budgetary obstacles) that keep each of Seattle's public schools from being good schools.
Ms Finne is a policy expert. She knows the state and political forces that shape it. Wouldn't we all rather see her working to get the state to provide the money, perspective, freedom, and accountability needed to create good schools?
Look. We all actually agree. The promise of charter schools is an escape from the counter-productive regulation of school districts and state education agencies. The bureaucrats at the district headquarters and the state education regulators are such an obstacle to making good schools that a lot of folks decided to just free themselves of those structures. And, if you were to ask Ms Westbrook, I'm pretty sure she would say that the real obstacles to making our public schools into good schools are among the administrators, not the teachers, students or families. Everyone already agrees on the problem in education. Ms Finne and the charter school advocates want to work around that obstacle. Ms Westbrook wants to fix the problem rather than bypass it. Both perspectives have merit. There's no point in duking it out over this question.
Our energy would be better spent talking about what is a good school and how we can make every school into one. Our energy would be better spent focusing on the real obstacle here. I don't see anyone working to create accountability for these bureaucrats and administrators with their six-figure salaries. Maybe Ms Finne could work on that as well.