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Jeffrey Shapiro: Charter schools offer students more options

Posted: October 31, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: October 31, 2012 2:00 a.m.
 

Across the country, parents overwhelmingly approve of charter schools. For a parent, it can be painful to watch a child who just doesn’t “fit” with the traditional public schools.

Charter schools give families options. Most charter parents have stories of kids who thrive at their school who didn’t thrive before in traditional schools.

Unfortunately, in California, the gatekeepers have an inherent conflict of interest.

Charter school developers must petition school districts for approval, but school districts lose enrollment to charter schools.

Charter school approval dynamics vary widely around the state, but Santa Clarita Valley’s elementary districts’ opposition has been aggressive. This pattern goes against the intent and the letter of the law. California law instructs school boards that, in reviewing charter school petitions, the establishment of charter schools should be encouraged.

Despite the law, in a Sept. 9 article in The Signal, Newhall School District Superintendent Marc Winger is quoted as saying, “It’s a mistake to bring any charters into the Santa Clarita Valley.”

Families tend to prefer more choices and deserve them, but the fact is, it’s not about whose perspective is right. The law limits grounds for denial.

California law instructs authorizers to grant petitions if doing so is consistent with sound educational practice.

Quality of the proposed schools is clearly not the issue for local authorizers, however.

For example, the existing Albert Einstein Academy middle/high school, authorized by the William S. Hart Union School District, became the highest-scoring junior high school in the district in its first year of operation.

The school’s enrollment is comparable to that of the closest neighboring schools, with somewhat more African American, Filipino and white students, and somewhat fewer Asian and Latino students.

With API scores of 908 and 910 out of 1,000, Einstein’s first two years constitute an undeniably positive track record.

Yet, Einstein’s “educational soundness” was denied in its petition to the Saugus Union School District to establish an elementary school.

How? Here’s just one example.

Einstein Academy’s charter petition affirms that it will offer transitional kindergarten, in which children who would previously have been old enough to attend kindergarten now can get a bonus year of schooling.

Since the law is hotly contested, Einstein’s petition promises to offer the program as may be required by law.

The Saugus Union School District created a denial finding out of this, asserting that the proposed school’s failure to “implement a transitional kindergarten program could cause educational or psychological harm to pre-kindergarten-age students.”

Absurd contortions of logic are the name of the game in denying strong charter school petitions. School districts dead-set against charters set up an army of straw men and knock them down.

Charter schools do not charge tuition and are open to all students. When demand exceeds enrollment limits, a lottery is instituted, giving all an equal chance at admission.

One size does not fit all in life or in education. Without charter schools, parents’ only options are private school and home schooling, neither of which are viable for most families.

For the majority of middle- and lower-income families, charter schools are the only realistic alternative to traditional public schools.

Condoleeza Rice has described school choice as the “civil rights issue of our day.”

President Barack Obama has said charter schools “serve as incubators of innovation in neighborhoods across our country.”

Increasing charter schools is a central point in presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s education plan. One of the few areas where Democrats and Republicans can agree is in the area of school choice and charter schools.

Unfortunately, bipartisan agreement on charter schools thrives only at the national level, where teachers’ unions don’t rule the roost.

A free society flourishes with competition, innovation and choice. That is exactly what charter schools bring to the table.

School districts exist to serve families’ and broader societal aims, not to serve their own self-interests. Santa Clarita Valley families may need to remind the public servants to remember this.

In the second part of this commentary, appearing in Thursday’s Signal, we will go into greater detail about the success of the Albert Einstein Academy and how opposition to choice and innovation are misplaced and misguided.

Jeffrey Shapiro is executive director of the foundation for the Albert Einstein Academy for Arts, Letters and Sciences.

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