Across our state and our nation, parents and policymakers are not only waking up to the crisis in public education – they are waking up to the fact that they have the power to do something about it.
Over the past decade, high-quality charter schools have become an important part of the solution to the problems facing students trapped in failing schools. By providing better academic choices for parents in primarily low-income and underserved communities, high-quality charter schools continue to give parents the power to vote with their feet and chart an educational destiny for their children based on ability and desire, rather than zip code and socioeconomic status. In addition, parents in California and other states have historic new power under the Parent Trigger law to transform their failing schools through community organizing, by either forcing the district to bring in new staff and fresh leadership, or converting their school to a high-quality charter school.
However, when we face problems this daunting, intractable, and long-standing, we must approach solutions with both humility and pragmatism. A kids-first agenda is not the same as blind ideology or rigid adherence to one single theory of change. While we have finally begun to force powerful defenders of the status quo to acknowledge the importance of adult accountability in traditional public schools, we must view public charter schools through the same exacting lens of a kids-first agenda.
Viewing charters through this lens means acknowledging that there is no magic wand that makes every charter school good for kids. While many charter schools are doing exceptionally well, others have results that are indistinguishable from the failing traditional public schools down the street.
That is why I spent much of my tenure on the State Board of Education drafting and passing new regulations to shut down the lowest-performing charter schools. And that is why our organization, Parent Revolution, strongly supports the charter accountability measures – AB 440, AB 360, and SB 645 – that are working their way through the Legislature.
These bills would take several important steps toward ensuring real accountability for California charter schools. They would increase academic standards, augment transparency, tighten conflict of interest safeguards, and chart a bold new process to shut down some of the lowest-performing charter schools in the state. This legislation recognizes the simple fact that charter schools are given large sums of public dollars and granted transformative freedoms from the education bureaucracy – but in exchange, parents expect excellence and innovation.
These bills are not perfect, and we urge lawmakers to fix the shortcomings present in the current draft. Adjustments should be made to ensure that charter schools undertaking school turnaround work – arguably the most challenging work facing educators and policymakers – are provided the time they need to demonstrate sufficient student achievement rather than be punished for taking on the toughest assignments. We also share the concerns of some that district bureaucrats could abuse these well-intentioned standards in order to defend a failed status quo by over-regulating charter schools that are innovating and improving. But overall, we believe the legislation lays the groundwork for parents and policymakers to hold charter schools accountable for student performance.
We applaud the California Charter Schools Association for endorsing this legislation, even if it winds up shutting down some of its own members. There are far too many examples of organizations that defend their own narrow self-interest at the expense of the public good. By taking this stand, CCSA has chosen to represent the children that they serve, rather than the adults who pay their dues.
Unfortunately, there are some extremist charter school supporters who continue to put the interests of adults before the interests of children and oppose any sort of accountability for charter schools. The president of Parents for Public Virtual Education has penned multiple op-eds, including a piece for TOP-Ed last week, blasting the idea that any charter operator of any kind should be held accountable to any measurable academic standards. She and others should be reminded that charter schools are public schools, funded by public dollars. They have no inherent right to operate indefinitely without consequence no matter how badly they are serving children.
Parents know that failing charter schools are just as bad for children as failing district schools. We don’t care what section of the Education Code our child’s school falls under. We just want that school to help our children unlock their potential and realize their dreams.
Ben Austin serves as Executive Director of the non-profit Parent Revolution. He served as Deputy Mayor under Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and held a variety of roles in the Clinton White House. A former member of the California State Board of Education, he has helped craft education reforms based on parental choice.