Charter school debate grows

When charter schools first came along, I had my doubts.
But as the years passed and my son, Jonas, became the director of the State University of New York Charter School Institute, I began to change my mind. The passion that the president of the United States, the governor of Massachusetts, the mayor of New York, and my son have all invested in the idea of charter schools has helped convince me that charters are important in places where public education is failing. The theory is that charters, which raise the educational bar, are not weighed down by ridiculous bureaucratic mandates and thus they challenge the public schools to do better. We’ve seen some remarkable charter success stories in inner-city districts.

On the other hand, there are things that I do not like about charters. I don’t like the fact that existing school districts, like the extraordinary Berkshire Hills Regional School District, will eventually lose money if a local charter is granted. Money is tight already and under the rules, the money follows the kids, so the public schools suffer.

It is important to remember that the number of state charters is limited. The worse the schools, the more charters are warranted. Theoretically, the more choices every student has, the better. That, of course, has to be balanced by available funds which are mighty scarce right now. The Berkshire Hills district just took a devastating hit from the state, which has basically reneged on its commitment to fund our school transportation programs.

I have no doubt that the folks who are proposing a middle school charter operation in Barrington are good people who mean well. However, all reports from the recent meeting conducted by the state on the proposed charter school suggest that the group just doesn’t have its act together. There is no good rationale.

People opposed to this plan are really steaming. At the Lenox meeting, one person after another, young and old, rose to say that this is not the time to further divide the people’s educational tax dollars. Obviously, if you have a failing school system it makes sense to do anything you can to give our kids a fighting chance. Barack Obama and Deval Patrick know this. They were both taken out of substandard school systems and placed into prestigious private schools which allowed them greater opportunities in life.

Similarly, we know that many of the charter schools in challenged cities have shown remarkable results. In the case of at-risk schools, we have a life or death situation. That is not even close to being true in Great Barrington where we have a wonderful, innovative school system. However, if you don’t like the system we have you get something called “school choice.” Your child can go to any of the other schools in the area. If you live in Barrington and prefer the excellent Southern Berkshire district, your kid can go there or to Lenox or to Lee. That’s a lot of choices.

Since many of the folks who are pushing this idea have roots in the Rudolf Steiner system, some attending the Lenox meeting believed that there is a plan afoot to create a private school with public money. Then there is the question of accountability. If you don’t like what you are seeing in our schools, you go to the school board or vote against them in the next election. You don’t get to do that in a charter school operation.

At the big meeting, student after student stood up to speak of the progressiveness of the Great Barrington school system and the choices that are offered. Anything that would potentially harm our schools by depriving them of needed resources does not pass the smell test. We don’t need it and we shouldn’t have it.

There are people in my neighborhood who cannot keep up with our rising taxes. It would be a shame to have to support a school that we don’t need at the expense of older people who might lose their homes if taxes climb any higher.

I have always been in favor of supporting our essential services and as far as I am concerned, the first on that list is our school system. I hope that the powers-that-be in Boston and the state education department are listening. A lot of the people who attended the charter school meeting in Lenox sure made it clear that they weren’t happy with the prospects of seeing this intrusion which threatens to corrupt a school system that is working now.

Lucille Ball once said something along the lines of “Don’t fool with success.” Any politicians who don’t heed those words do so at their own peril.

Originally Published in the Berkshire Eagle, 12/12/09

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