By Martin Scanlan March 21, 2011 MJSentinel
On Wednesday morning at the state Capitol, the Senate Committee on Education will hold a public hearing on several bills: SB 20, SB 22 and SB 34. Senate Bill 22, which deals with public charter schools, is the bill with the most statewide effects. (The others focus solely on Milwaukee Public Schools.)
Two dimensions of SB 22 should give pause to citizens across the political spectrum because as written, the bill would make it less likely for charter schools to serve the common good. The effect will be to reduce the professionalism of the faculty and the level of local accountability for charter schools.
Clearly, the quality of education that occurs across sectors – public to private, preschool to postsecondary – is in the public interest. We all benefit when our schools educate children not only academically but in numerous other manners as well. Society is strengthened to the degree that children learn reflection, compassion, creativity and generosity. Schools can foster cross-cultural relationships and nurture respect amongst a populace that is growing increasingly pluralistic. While all schools serve the common good when they promote such learning, these characteristics define our expectations of public schools.
Charter schools, publicly funded and accountable, have proponents and detractors. Legitimate concerns have been raised about their quality. Empirical evidence shows that charter schools range widely in terms of student learning outcomes and, by and large, do not outperform their traditional public counterparts. Such unremarkable gains are alarming, since many charter schools are advantaged by being selective in which students they admit and retain. It is worth noting that such selectivity is antithetical to the nature of a public charter school because, by definition, public schools should take all comers.
At the same time, some charter schools serve as exemplary public schools by effectively serving an array of students, including those who have been marginalized in traditional public schools. Demonstrating responsiveness to parents and creative approaches to curriculum and instruction, charter schools can not only provide valuable options to families but can serve as incubators for educational innovation. For instance, Nuestro Mundo Community School, piloting a dual language approach to serving Latino students in Madison, has prompted traditional public schools in the district to rethink bilingual service delivery.
Beneath debates over the merit of charter schools lies a fundamental point on which advocates and critics agree: all public schools must prioritize the common good. This principle applies to neighborhood schools, city-wide magnet schools, or charter schools. For schools, prioritizing the common good means reducing educational inequities and improving opportunities, particularly for those students who have traditionally been most disadvantaged.
This brings us back to SB 22 and two components that citizens of all political stripes should resist. First, by modifying teacher licensure requirements, to require only a bachelor’s degree and no teacher’s license for charter school teachers, SB 22 suggests a diminished standard of professionalism for teachers in those schools. Abundant research confirms what parents (and students) intuit: The teacher is the most important factor affecting student learning. Public policy must enhance, not undermine, standards of professionalism for educators in all schools.
Second, by proposing a new, politically appointed “Charter School Authorizing Board” at the state level, SB 22 diminishes the local accountability of these schools. Schools, like most institutions, function best when their ties to the community are strong. Local districts, universities and municipalities – all of which currently have authority to charter schools – have such connections by design. A state-level, politically beholden authorizing agency would lack this local level of accountability.
In these tumultuous times, when hyperbolic discord drowns reasoned discourse, Wednesday’s hearing provides citizens across the state an important opportunity to rise above rhetorical positioning to defend public schooling that serves all students and thus the common good.
Martin Scanlan is assistant professor of educational policy and leadership in the College of Education at Marquette University.