Why Fear Choice?

According to Section 5210(1) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the Federal Government offers a comprehensive definition of a “charter school.”  The full definition actually has 12 components to it, including:

* Operates in pursuit of a specific set of educational objectives determined by the school’s developer and agreed to by the authorized public chartering agency
* Complies with the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
* Meets all applicable Federal, State, and local health and safety requirements
* Operates in accordance with State law
 
But there are two components of the definition that are most interesting, and relevant to the discussion of education reform.
First, A charter school “is a school to which parents choose to send their children, and that admits students on the basis of a lottery, if more students apply for admission than can be accommodated.”
Second, A charter school “has a written performance contract with the authorized public chartering agency in the State that includes a description of how student performance will be measured in charter schools pursuant to State assessments that are required of other schools and pursuant to any other assessments mutually agreeable to the authorized public chartering agency and the charter school.”
So charter schools are public schools.  They have to operate in accordance with all state laws and Federal requirements.  They must meet specific educational objectives.  They must be held accountable for their performance and for the performance of their students.  And they encourage family involvement by giving parents a choice.
Sounds good, right?  Then why do spend so much time fighting about charter schools?  Why do we pit public schools against each other, with charter opponents alleging that public charter schools “steal” money from traditional public schools?  Why do antagonists paint public charter schools, run by not-for-profits, as the gateway to school privatization and profiteering?  Why do we bemoan a lack of parental engagement in the classroom, then condemn those families that demonstrate their engagement by seeking to enroll their children in a public charter school?
There is no one-size-fits-all student, no one-size-fits-all method of instruction, and certainly no one-size-fits-all type of school.  We should be looking for ways we can offer a full portfolio of school choices — traditional publics, charters, magnets, technicals, vo-ags, and the rest — that are designed to meet student needs, family desires, and community expectations.  And we should be positioned to learn from all of the above, using best and promising practices to improve that full portfolio of public schools for all of our kids.
Despite the fear promoted by many charter opponents, public charter schools are not in the business of looking to take over the public schools.  They are public schools looking to provide choice to families looking alternatives.  They are public schools looking to provide opportunity to those who feel locked in a failed situation.  They may not be for every student, but for some, they are the path to possibility. 
Whether a family is looking for a school of choice for better academic opportunities, a safer learning environment, or one of many other reasons, we should be embracing choice.  It improves all of our public schools and, more importantly, improves student learning for all, regardless of race, family income, or zip code.

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