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Allan Powell: Do we really need a charter school?

January 25, 2013|By ALLAN POWELL

On Sunday, Jan. 6, The Herald-Mail reported a request by several citizens to the Board of Education to consider the approval of what would be our first charter school. This, in effect, is a request for a parallel system with a traditional school system alongside another with different rules and expectations. Such an important move, if approved, should be the result of cautious and deliberate study. Here are three suggestions to be used in such a study.

First is a cost-benefit feature because the needed funds will almost certainly be taken out of existing budgets. Then, a review of performance studies of charter schools would be in order. Also, there should be a philosophical justification for such a move. We have, at present, a well-respected traditional school system with several elementary schools having special-needs programs, a technical school, an arts school, several parochial schools and freedom to engage in home schooling. This raises the question of the need for still another approach to the education of our children.

By happenstance, on the same day that the request was reported, there was a long story in the Washington Post about a problem in the charter schools in the District of Columbia. According to the report, charter schools expelled 676 students in the past three years while the traditional public schools expelled only 24. The problem generated by this situation was that the expelled students were thrust upon traditional schools in mid-term and they did not have the luxury of choice. Charter schools then opposed changes in the rules still binding on traditional schools.

The problem was compounded by another report that appeared in the Washington Post less than a week later. In a letter written by a retired teacher, it was charged that an even larger issue was the number of charter school students who transferred to public schools. “Between the October 2010 and 2011 enrollment audits, D.C. charter high schools ninth, 10th and 11th grade cohorts transferred more than 1,350 students ...” No explanation was given about the conditions of transfer but, if these were low-performance students, it would partially account for high-performance rates of some charter schools.

The well-known study of comparative performance should be studied thoroughly. The research conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University reports the results of research in 15 states and the District of Columbia. In math, 17 percent of charter school students had significantly higher scores, 37 percent had significantly worse scores and 46 percent had approximately similar scores. Other results are useful in this 17-page document but the most surprising fact was that the first year was very difficult and “results ranged from poor to very poor.” Parents should be aware of this finding.

The larger issue is that of deciding the range of options appropriate, viable, reasonable and affordable for a democratic society. While many options are welcome, the public schools are the responsible backbone of a democracy. Do we need to create a parallel system of education or can improvements come about within the present structure?

The applicants say they want to use the “Expeditionary Learning Model” to guide the learning process because it is a “natural” way to learn. This “hands on” approach will be used to enrich the learning situation. What is meant by “natural” is not explained, and it is not clear how traditional education is any less “natural” than what they propose.

Any qualified teacher is fully aware of the need to go beyond vicarious learning such as the use of a picture rather than a direct act of engaging in the immediate direct experience. They are aware that a “hands on” experience is more powerful than simply reading or being told about the subject. Using a saw is better than being told about a saw. But we trust each experienced teacher to discover ways to do this in ways appropriate for their subject. This is done within the system, without the need for a whole new structure to make it happen.

It is entirely possible that charter schools and voucher schools could be fads that will divert us from the fundamental needs of educating children. Charter schools might be a difference that makes no difference. If studies show that charter schools have deficiencies that are hard to remove, there would be little wisdom in having two flawed systems rather than one that can be improved. We should not be in a hurry to make a move toward charter schools.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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