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MY WORD: Public education at a crossroad? Charter schools aren't answer

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By J. Howard Griffith

My grandfather was a farmer and teamster in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia. Back in 1915 he was asked to move a rural school building from one location to another, about 100 yards.

He raised up that little one room schoolhouse by about 2 feet and placed several round logs under the building as rollers. He then hooked his fine team of horses to a harness attached to the building and slowly but surely moved the building to its new location.

Today in Kentucky there is a movement afoot to move the traditional public school system – or at least a part of the system – to a new location.

Kentucky is only one of seven states that do not allow the formation of charter schools. During this past legislative session, there has been another attempt to pass legislation that would allow the development of charter schools in Kentucky. The question confronting every parent and taxpayer is simply this: Are charter schools the wave of the future or a whirlpool sucking resources from an already strapped public education system?

Charter schools are non-religious public schools operating under a contract called a charter. Every detail about the school is spelled out in the charter: name, organization, educational materials and methodology for measuring student performance. The school receives public funding and must have an open enrollment process.

The primary difference between a public school and a charter school is that a charter school is freed from the kinds of regulation and oversight provided by state and local rules. But does that freedom from local oversight provide for a better quality educational outcome for the student?

Often the reason for forming charter schools has to do with dissatisfaction that is expressed with public education in general. We have heard before the theme over and over. Public education is a failure, the teachers are low achievers, we spend too much money on schools, jobs are protected by the teacher's union, and students drop out because the school system has not provided adequately for them.

The solution is to fire the poor teachers, pay more to the better teachers and create charter schools, funded by taxpayer dollars but controlled by private organizations, many of them operating to make a profit.

But is there general dissatisfaction on the part of the public for their local school? A recent Gallup Poll indicated that Americans are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the quality of our nation's public schools, but 77 percent of the public school parents awarded their child's public school a grade of A or B, the highest level of approval since the question was first asked in 1985.

There seems to be a bit of a disconnect between perception and reality.

Is there a measurable difference between public schools and charter schools? The proponents of charter schools like to cite the Harlem Success Academy on 118 St. in New York City as one of the outstanding success stories.

The Harlem Success Academy shares the same building with a public school, P.S. 149. Both schools draw students from the same community, often from the same family. At first glance, it would appear that both schools share a similar student body. The testing results of the public school significantly lag behind the adjacent charter school. Does this provide primary evidence that charter schools do it better?

No! The student bodies are really not the same. The charter school can pick and choose its students, but the public school has to take every student that comes in its door.

Public schools cannot cherry pick their students. In the public school P.S. 149, 81 percent of the students are below the poverty level, 20 percent are special education students, 40 percent are severely disabled in self-contained classes, 13 percent are English language learners and more than 10 percent were homeless. The student bodies of the two schools are not the same. In fact they are radically different.

A public school cannot kick out an entire middle school class simply because the class on average did not make the grade as happened at the Harlem Success Academy.

At the Harlem Success Academy, 2 percent are English language learners (compared to 13 percent at P.S. 149), 16.9 percent special education students (compared to 20 percent at P.S. 149, and few are severely disabled. The charter school had three homeless students in the 2008-2009 school years.

Often we hear critics of our public school system say that just throwing more money at education will not solve the problem. SEED is one of the highly praised charter boarding schools in Washington, D.C. It has a high rate of graduation and college acceptance.

But SEED spends $35,000 a year per student. In Shelby County we spend $9,782. I suspect that if we had the difference to apply to our local public school system, we would see a significant and measurable upswing in test scores and college acceptance rates.

And, by the way, where does that $35,000 dollars per student come from? Part of it comes from tax dollars, and part of it comes from wealthy donors.

In new research, recently released by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, researchers reported that only 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, that 37 percent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than traditional public schools and that 46 percent of charter schools demonstrated no significant gains.

In this brief comparison, what should the take away be? Some charter schools are outstanding, and some are average, and some are poor. But the charter school movement does not posses the magic wand that will transform education in America.

There are many outstanding public schools, and some poor ones. However, the traditional public school must educate every student that comes in the door, regardless of his or her physical or mental condition. Public schools have many local checks and balances that protect both the school and the taxpayer.

My grandfather was simply moving a rural country school building from one place to another. As the educational system in our state moves into this 21st century, I believe that it is vital that we provide our public school system with all the support we can muster.

Traditional public education is both the cornerstone of our democracy and the touchstone of a strong middle class. Let's not mess it up with another gimmick.

J. Howard Griffith lives in Shelbyville.