MY WORD: In support of charter schools

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By Jerry Stephenson

An article published in The Sentinel News (“Public education at a crossroad? Charter schools aren't answer,” My Word, April 10), written by J. Howard Griffith, raised some interesting questions about charter schools and what they could mean for the state of Kentucky, which, as the author notes, is one of only seven states that do not allow the formation of such educational options.

As a supporter of quality education reform and the rights of parents to have access to high-quality educational options for their children, I want to point out that Mr. Griffith left out some important points as it relates to charter schools and the value they could bring to Kentucky.

Simply stated, charter schools are tuition-free public schools that are accountable to state and federal academic standards but are free to innovate outside traditional regulations to boost student achievement. Successful charter schools across the country have taken advantage of this freedom to extend the school day to provide more time on task, adjust the curriculum to meet students’ needs, create a distinctive culture or special theme, and develop groundbreaking learning models that redefine the classroom and reflect the latest research on effective teacher training.

At one point Mr. Griffith states that the question confronting parents and taxpayers is: “Are charter schools the wave of the future or a whirlpool sucking resources from an already strapped public education system?” I’d like to offer a response.

As a well-respected community leader, a member of the local clergy and state director for the Kentucky Black Alliance for Educational Options, I have spent the last five years fighting for families. In this time, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to parents who are frustrated, saddened and at a loss for answers. For these parents the question is not about whether charter schools are the wave of the future, the question is “why can’t my child have access to a high-quality option that gives them a greater chance of achievement.”

These parents are taxpayers who want the best for their children but their children are either attending failing schools or being failed by traditional learning environments. They are ready and willing to try something new and different because they understand that if we keep doing the same thing, we will keep getting the same results. And time is not on their side. Their children can’t wait for the system to fix itself, they need solutions today, and charter schools provide a solution.

When it comes to educating children, there is no one-size fit all approach. Charter schools offer an effective alternative and give parents a chance to choose between many different types of innovative learning environments, ranging from schools that focus on gifted children or arts and science to ones that emphasize discipline or have a particular focus on children with special needs.

Charter schools serve all children, not just those who learn best in a traditional classroom.

For those families I mentioned earlier, the primary difference between their traditional public school and the proposed option of charter schools, is the difference between increasing their children’s chance of success as opposed to failure, the difference between hope and desperation and most important, the freedom to make a choice about their children’s future, which is invaluable.

I would like to ask Mr. Griffith what happens to those children whose traditional environments are failing them today? Do they wait while we improve the system that’s been trying to improve for the last 50 years? Are their hopes and the dreams not important enough for us to offer them solutions and options that can have an impact now as opposed to 10 years from now? And to the question about whether there is a measurable difference between public schools and charter schools, research is already revealing that charter schools are an effective tool for raising achievement for many low-income and minority students in other states that do allow charter schools. Our state has to be forward thinking enough to look at the research and what these other states are doing and think about how we can model some of those efforts to see some success of our own.

What I do agree with in Mr. Griffith’s article is that there is no magic wand that will transform education in America or even our state. It takes a lot of hard work, commitment and determination on the parts of many. It also takes a bold new way of thinking and new ideas that spark innovation. This is where charter schools come in. Yes, we are moving into the 21st Century, and this just means that we need to be thinking new approaches and new ways of doing things. If we don’t, our children and our state will get left behind in the global race to the top.


Pastor Jerry Stephenson is state director of the Kentucky Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO).