Michigan charter school debate should focus on quality over ideology

Dec 19, 2011 by

By Tom Watkins –

The only adjective that truly matters before the word “school” (be it traditional or charter) is quality.

When it comes to our schools, we need to move beyond political rhetoric — whether from the left or right — and put the focus on teaching, learning and children, not power, control, or adult politics.

We need to support quality learning regardless of from where it emanates.

Traditional schools, charter schools, e-learning — all have a place in the educational framework as long as they are preparing our children for the hyper-competitive, disruptive, technological and knowledge-driven global economy where ideas and jobs can and do move around the world effortlessly.

Having recently returned from China, let me assure you that they are not slowing down while we indulge in ideological fights.

In spite of public schools’ past achievements, the current system is leaving far too many children behind.

Efforts under way to “fix” or help existing public schools are laudable, but more can and should be done for the students and their parents – not for the district or the system.

Neither charters nor traditional schools are a panacea.

Sixteen years ago I wrote an article where I characterized charter-school advocates into three main categories that remain true to this day:

Zealots and Ideologues: These people tend to view charter schools passionately, as a way toward “the truth” or at least an intermediate answer to public education’s problems until they get a voucher system in place. Their enthusiasm and devotion to the cause blinds them to complexities. Their belief system contains these homilies: Private is always better than public, the market system is inherently superior to the public system and unions are always the problem. This group is on a mission — beware!

The Entrepreneurial Scoundrel: I could care less if someone makes a profit operating public schools, but that profit margin must come after the bottom line is met: Children getting the education they need and deserve. If someone can develop a method of educating young people that is effective, innovative and inclusive — and makes money — more power to them. Profit motives should not be the focus. The focus must be on the vultures circling our schools with no real regard for the educational outcomes of the children: a group with slick presentations and proposals that look good on the surface. In the long run, prospects for real beneficial change for the students are limited.

The motive is money – not learning. Look out for these so-called “entrepreneurs” in education.

Student, parent and teacher-centered reformers: There are many people who believe strongly in the value of public education yet realize it is flawed and, in some places, past the breaking point. These individuals realize that real changes will require bold risk-taking. To these reformers, charter schools are not anti-public schools but pro-child and they offer real quality alternatives. These reformers realize that not unlike how Apple changed the computer culture and foreign automobile makers prod change in domestic car quality, they to can provide the productive tension needed to spur innovation in children’s learning.

As the old Chinese proverb says, “When you open the window -all the flies can come in.” Yet, we have also shut the widow, trapping far too many kids in failing schools.

The focus must be on establishing quality screens — not to keep charter schools out — but to assure quality is built in to all educational opportunities for our children.

A lousy education, regardless of its source, does not prepare our students for life on the world stage.

So stop the ideological fights and place the focus on appropriate oversight and quality education regardless of its source — for the sake of our children and our collective future.

Tom Watkins served as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools, 2001-05, and helped create the first charter school in Michigan and Florida. He is a U.S.-China business and educational consultant. Email: tdwatkins88@gmail.com

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