I must break rank from the educational establishment and support the constitutional amendment because the time has come for a new order. Just who or what is the old order? The old order — in all 50 states, actually — is each state’s teachers’ association (whether union or non-union), the state’s school administrators’ organization and each state’s Department of Education. Add the illicit, intrusive federal Department of Education plus the influence of college education professors, and you get not just an establishment, but a monolith; one that, despite the good intentions of its leaders, is not academics-centered, but institution/regulation-centered.
There is no doubt that the charter school movement constitutes a chipping away at the old order. It is a legitimate, understandable effort to side-step the bureaucratic monolith. It is rightly perceived as the rumble of change. One of the most onerous features of the old order is that educational quality is determined by a family’s zip code. In the old order the constant cry is “Give us more money” even though every state commits at least half its budget to education.
But the reason the monolith needs more money is that it is so big and is constantly getting bigger. It harbors a brick and mortar mentality. Does it really take a massive bureaucracy, or the finest buildings, to teach a child to read? Must we have high schools so large that crowd control and discipline force academics to take a back seat? Charter school advocates answer both of these questions with a resounding “No!”
We often hear the words, “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we …” do thus and such? To me, the question is fair regarding our schools. Why can’t we have schools that focus on science and math, or the arts? Why can’t we have smaller high schools here and there for the growing number of students who feel swamped by their high school’s athletic agenda and emphasis? Why can’t we acknowledge that state government, which constitutionally created the counties and cities, should have a role other than just putting a check in the mail to local school systems?
Opponents of the charter school amendment have presented three major arguments. One is that the amendment would erode local control. I suggest it would do the opposite. Which is more local, a board of education making educational decisions for parents, or parents making those decisions for themselves? The amendment would not centralize educational decision-making; it would spread it. No parents will be forced to send their children to charter schools, but they will certainly have more options whenever and wherever charter schools are available.
Another opposing argument is that the seven members of the state charter school commission, which would have the power to overrule local boards of education, would be unaccountable since they would be appointed by the governor, the lieutenant-governor, and the Speaker of the House. This argument falls flat when we consider the fact that currently the thirteen state school board members who set the policy for all schools are also appointed, but by one person — the governor — not three. How accountable, or political, is that?
Still another opposing argument is that charter schools are divisive, that they inject class and race into an otherwise egalitarian system. State Sen. Emmanuel Jones of Decatur claims that charter schools would re-instate “segregation academies.” If this was true, I don’t think that Republican Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones of Fulton County and Democratic Representative Alisha Morgan of Austell would be working together to get the amendment passed. These two legislators are as far apart philosophically as they can be, except when it comes to improving education. Rep. Morgan has bravely broken ranks with her party and the legislative Black Caucus because of her genuine commitment to education reform.
I’m persuaded that many parents want educational options for reasons other than academic ones. For instance, the larger the school, the more likely are students to get sucked into behaviors and influences that parents don’t approve of.
Today, more than ever, children and teens are being shaped by other children and teens. Nothing is more values-laden than education, and because of this truth, parents are voting with their feet and their dollars. More and more young parents with whom I talk desire a more decentralized education style. The charter school amendment will move a long way toward granting that desire.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.