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Charters and Vouchers: Who Will Lead Their Development?

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choice-1799749_640.jpgWith the appointment of Betsy DeVos for education secretary, many are understandably predicting a proliferation of vouchers and charter schools. It is her espoused solution for guaranteeing a fair and equitable education for all students, no matter their zip code. Since that is also the goal of public education... equal access to success... and zip codes may be one of the problems that prevents success for all, why can't we get behind the voucher and charter solution? 

The answer is both simple and complex. The problem that prevents all students from reaching high levels of success is not where a student lives, not the quality of the school facility and teachers, not the funding disparities, not students' physical and mental health, not socio-economic levels, not level of parent involvement. It's all of these. 

The Rand Corporation issued a study in 2009 that reported

Their students (or the students' parents) choose to attend the charter schools rather than being assigned to a school based on residential location. U.S. charter school opened in 1992, and the scale of the charter movement has since grown to 4,000 schools and more than a million students in 40 states and the District of Columbia. With this growth has also come a contentious debate. Supporters argue that charter schools can improve student achievement and attainment, serve as laboratories for innovation, provide choice to families that have few options, and promote healthy competition with traditional public schools (TPSs). Critics worry that charter schools perform no better (and, too often, worse) than TPSs, that they may exacerbate stratification by race and ability, and that they harm the students left in TPSs by skimming away financial resources and motivated families.

That Was 2009. It Is Now 2016. 
What has changed? One example is Florida. From The Hill, today, we read this.

Last year in Florida, 1.5 million, or 43 percent, of all pre-K-12 students attended a school other than the one assigned by the address where they live. School districts themselves have led the charge for choice, creating academic-themed magnet schools, career academies, International Baccalaureate programs, online education, and courses that fulfill high school and college credits at the same time. Students can also choose from district-approved, privately-run charter schools and from scholarships to private schools that are based on financial and special needs.

The Power of Choice
We recently wrote a blog about Betsy DeVos' appointment and called for educators to prepare their voices with rationale for supporting the present system. Yes, some schools are excellent and some do less well. The same can be said of charter schools. When parents chose to send their child to an alternative learning environment, whether it be a private religious school or a public charter school, the obvious factor is parent choice. Maybe that is really the single thing that makes all the difference. Choice. Can it be that simple? Would parents and children be more engaged if choice were everywhere? Would teachers and leaders function differently if we weren't a monopoly? Is it the lack of choice that breeds resentments and arrogance?  Since the Rand report in 2009, schools have done little to capture the attention and develop the relationships necessary with parents. We have done little to stem the tide of political criticism. Although digital communication has risen and info about what is happening in a child's class or school has been more publically shared, we haven't witnessed a dramatic rise in student achievement.  Rarely, do we hear of schools who became successful after being a failing school.

 Worse is the reality that we may be able to fight for different and more funding, improve curriculum, and teacher performance, better address the psychological and psychiatric challenges facing students, but after working hard at trying to develop constructive relationships with the parents and guardians of all of the students, it is likely that effort will reveal the least success.  Especially in places where poverty is high, in cities and in rural areas, parents do not feel as if we are their partners. There are very few parents who just don't care. Many may be working several jobs, or they may be carrying their own experiences of school into the relationships they develop with their child' school. The life challenges of some cause them to depending on schools for more than learning. It takes more than reaching out and trying to establish relationships with these struggling adults. It requires an extension to make up the difference if they can't.

The Power of Parent Involvement
Again, we look back to 2009 to pick up the research of John Hattie in his innovative meta study Visible Learning (2009). Hattie compared effect sizes of many aspects that influence learning outcomes.  His research confirmed the value and impact of the teacher-student relationship as a powerful factor in student learning and success.  But his research also noted that parent involvement is as well.  It is well within in our control to develop stronger teacher-student relationships. It is also within our control....if we choose to do it...to build stronger relationships with parents. 

Perhaps it is an ideological belief that the vouchers and charters hold the answer to what we haven't been able to achieve. Perhaps it is about empowering parents with choices. Perhaps it is about making all parents feel powerful and all children wanted. Fundamentally, we all need to belong. We especially want that for all children.

Parent involvement opens the door.  Partnerships with parents have to be defined by the system, the district, the building, and the folks working with children.  Let's begin to focus on what we can control - relationships between teachers and students and parents.  The research supports that. And, let's think again about that article from the Hill.  Not only did the author share her own story as a beneficiary of school choice, she also noted that "school districts themselves have led the charge for choice". Nearly half of Florida's students are in school of choice. Each of us will need to decide the balance for our leadership. How much resistance/how much creativity? If there is going to be choice, why can't we be the leaders of the charge? Can we create a new system rather than have one imposed on us? It might be more successful from the start.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email 

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