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Where's the Creative Thinking on Charter Schools?

Last year, I made a rule in my American government class that when students selected topics for their long-term projects, no one could choose the issue of abortion.

This wasn't an ideological stance for me; it was a pedagogical one. Over the course of my teaching, I'd read dozens of essays from my 9th and 10th graders summarizing the two sides of the abortion debate. The students who chose this topic rarely approached it with curiosity or open-mindedness. Both liberal and conservative students researched the topic with a fixed mindset that kept them from seeking out new information or complex understanding. Instead of learning about and considering differing viewpoints, my students just repeated familiar ideas.

The tendency to circle an issue without injecting new ideas is not confined to my students. This is political stagnation, and when it happens, the time and resources of both the elected and the governed are wasted rehashing an old issue instead of coming up with practical solutions.

In education policy circles, the issue of charter schools is approaching such a condition, where charter advocates and opponents stop providing new responses each other's arguments and stop seeking creative solutions and instead fall back on familiar policy initiatives.

An example of this pattern of behavior can be found in Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's recently proposed charter legislation, which has parallels in several other states. Maryland currently has a charter law that only allows local school boards the authority to grant charters, and requires all charter teachers to be members of a school district's union. Hogan's proposal would allow the state board of education the power to approve charters, and the power to overrule districts that reject charter applications. It would also make union membership optional for charter schools, which will make it easier for charter operators to expand. The bill includes many provisions that incentivize the rapid expansion of charters, including ones that would quickly shift money away from public schools before student populations stabilize. The ethos of the bill is about removing any and all obstacles to charter growth.

The evidence on whether charters improve student outcomes is mixed. Yet this bill says almost nothing that would ensure that Maryland has more high quality charters, not mediocre or failing ones. Our nation has spent over 15 years implementing charter practice, and in those years the charter movement has shown both a lot of promise and spectacular failures. Why does this bill take none of those lessons into account?

Our country needs more high quality schools, and I'm indifferent about whether they're charters or not. (I feel strongly, however, about the need for charters to be unionized.) Hogan is repeating positions from 10 years ago, rather than thinking creatively to solve problems based on wide and exhaustive research. Ignoring the lessons of the charter movement when you draft legislation is a waste of time, and if this bill passes it's sure to be a waste of resources.

We can't afford to get stuck having the same argument over and over again instead of finding new solutions for our kids. It's our responsibility to work together and propose innovative solutions to bring high quality education within reach of all students.

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