Letting the Citizens Start Schools


Why not encourage inventive and talented people in society to launch new public schools? What of giving universities, corporations, social-service or neighborhood organizations a crack at starting schools?

The idea is percolating around the country. On Chicago's tough West Side, a group of more than 50 corporations has been running a tuition-free model elementary school for three years. In Portland, Ore., and other Pacific Northwest cities, the YWCA runs schools for homeless kids under contract with school districts. Boston University runs the public schools in Chelsea, Mass.

And now, in Minnesota, birthplace of the public-school choice concept in the 1980s, the legislature has just passed a bill that may get around the issue of public dollars for religious instruction -- the potentially fatal flaw of the Bush administration's school-choice plan.

The Minnesota measure would permit groups of teachers and parents, if they can get school board approval, to set up public "chartered" schools.

The new schools would have to meet state standards and be strictly nonsectarian.

The idea, says its backers, could overcome a critical weakness of standard school choice: lack of alternative quality public schools for parents to pick.

President Bush would solve the quality problem by allowing private schools into the mix. But including religious and parochial schools could well smother the promise of school choice in its crib.

Could the Minnesota plan, or some variant, turn out to be the answer? Perhaps. But first some thorny issues must be resolved:

Could an ideological group unacceptable to the community start one? The chartering board would have to exercise discretion in deciding which applications to accept.

At the heart of the charter-school idea is the lifting of many onerous regulations that so often hamstring creativity in the public schools. The schools could be more free-ranging, because parents would have freedom to choose them or not.

Even so, some basic rules would have to be observed by any school receiving public funding. Racial or ethnic discrimination would be strictly forbidden. So would "creaming" the highest-performing kids.

Basic rules ought to resolve the first complaint -- that charter schools would quickly fill up with kids from middle-class, motivated families, leaving poor kids mired in the worst public schools.

That charge ignores the fact that, in most places, the poorest kids are now congregated in terribly deficient schools. Are inner-city parents so callous and uncaring they wouldn't, given real choices, switch their kids to better schools?

The market opportunities for charter schools may well be strongest in depressed neighborhoods. Wealthy parents have always had choices. Fancy private schools are one result. Middle-class people simply move to better school districts. It's the poor who've been stuck in the most dismal classrooms.

What we know now is that innovative schools can increase poor kids' academic performance dramatically. The problem is one of supply. As long as innovative schools for poor children have to be privately funded, there'll never be more than a handful.

What about violent kids, or ones who refuse to do their homework? The same rules that govern keeping or expelling kids from regular public schools would apply in charter schools.

What about curriculum? The state could still set minimums on subject matter covered. And charter schools would be subject to the same periodic testing, and public reporting, as all public schools.

Indeed, information on school performance would be critical for parents to decide where to send their children, or when to pull them out.

What about teaching qualifications? The answer could be a bachelor's degree and three months of intensive teacher training -- not all the teacher-college courses required by school bureaucracies.

What's likely would be a mix of talented, nontraditional educators entering the game, paired with longtime professionals.

It's easy to envision charter schools populated by refugees from the public school system: teachers and administrators who want a fresh chance -- unencumbered by a million regulations -- to reach and motivate children and to prove their skills.

Charter schools, instead of a threat to the talented people working in public education today, could be an exciting opportunity for them.

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

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