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  • Writer's pictureAllan J. Mucerino


While I was learning about education in Tennessee this past week, specifically the urban schools in and around Memphis, another Southern state, Kentucky, was in the news when state officials announced proposed regulations for charter schools that will open in Kentucky for the first time.

Kentucky is one of a handful of states where charter schools are absent, a quarter-century into the charter school movement. Perhaps encouraged by the school choice movement spearheaded by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, or the likelihood that funding will flow in the direction of charter schools, or perhaps in recognition that the charter movement is arguably the single greatest reform movement in education, Kentucky will join forty-four other states and the District of Columbia by enacting charter-enabling laws.

Kentucky was smart. Considering the sorted history of charter schools with its varying degrees of success and failure among the practically 7,000 charters across the country, waiting to let it play out gives Kentucky the advantage of filtering and distinguishing between the good and the bad. 

For example, Kentucky can avoid virtual charter schools, which tend to perform poorly compared with other types of charter schools. But overall, the evidence suggests that performance varies widely by charter school type. Charter schools that serve largely urban communities and that are characterized by high behavioral and academic expectations for pupils, longer school days and years, curricula geared toward college entry, and robust school cultures tend to have success. Charter schools that serve largely urban communities but are far less selective with their admission and disciplinary policies tend to be far less successful. Of course, schools that have no admission policies and take all comers, including students with chronic disciplinary issues, are your run-of-the-mill public schools, where the children left behind attend.

While many school districts have non-charter schools that have admission policies, higher standards for dress and behavior, and other policies and practices that lead to increased homogeneity, named Fundamental Schools in California and Optional Schools in Memphis, the students who are left behind end up attending the other schools in the district, often leading to a preponderance of students with challenges in one school or another. These schools become difficult to staff over time and usually suffer from higher rates of turnover and low morale than its counterparts with more selective policies and practices.

Misleading conclusions about the success or failure of charters abound. Some state’s lawmakers have chosen not to enable charter schools, be it for political or other reasons. But to ignore the quality of excellent charter schools and the impact that one or more can have on a school district is irresponsible, particularly on political or ideological grounds, given the potential a charter school can bring to a community.

In the case of the school district where I am the Superintendent of Schools, with an unduplicated count (e.g. Low Income, Foster, ELL) of around 70%, an excellent charter school has changed the trajectory of the school district, and potentially for all of its students.  The premier charter school we have partnered with has attracted students from 84 cities throughout the region to our school district, reversing a trend of fifteen consecutive years of declining enrollment.

Their mission is to provide a creative, challenging, and nurturing environment that offers bright and talented students unparalleled preparation for higher education and a profession in the arts.  It is based on the innovative and award-winning curriculum of the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA).  Our mission is to provide equal opportunity to all of our students. The impact the charter school has had on my district can be measured by the increased enrollment and the high level of interest. Thanks to the partnership, we are more stable financially , more diverse demographically, and more enriched as a school district and as a community.  The unique compact that we jointly entered into with the Orange County School of the Arts to form the California School of the Arts (CSArts) is an example of a truly integrated school model that leaves no children left behind.

Charter schools, at one time early in the charter school experiment, were initiated as lab schools by progressives who sought a democratic society and believed schools could negate inequality, poverty, and discrimination. Undergirded by an empirical foundation, it was thought that this progressive educational reform initiative could lighten the dark side of capitalism. As charters proliferated, there became the notion that their existence would cause traditional public schools to improve through competition. Neither of those ideals have proven to have gained traction in practice or support in the literature or the multitude of studies examining the charter school movement. What has proven to be true about the charter school movement and arguably the primary reason it is more popular than ever and even gaining support among school boards, teachers unions, and state legislatures, is the expanded educational options charter schools provide to students and the opportunity for greater innovation they provide to educators.  

Yet, charter schools continue to spur debate. Margaret E. Raymond, the Director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, wrote,

“Nowhere in the swirling arguments about improving K-12 education in the United States is his [British philosopher John Stuart Mill who remarked, ‘In all intellectual debates, both sides tend to be correct in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny’] notion truer than when applied to charter schools.

Maligned and revered, exemplified or reviled, almost every discussion about charter schools involves a tangle of differing histories, theories, values, and facts. Worse, many times, the parties to the discussion aren't even aware they're operating on different planes of discourse. A sort of mental grid lock often results.”

As Kentucky moves away from its resistance to charter schools as it has its dependence on coal and all the other fossil fuels, a new era is emerging in Kentucky politics. Whatever side of the charter fence you sit on, or if you happen to sit upon the fence, there is no denying that charter schools support the democratic ideal (and federal role) of equal educational opportunity. As an educator, it is our moral imperative; and as an education leader it is our sole purpose.


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