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Matthew Stokes: Three Cheers for Charter Schools

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

One of the more recent heartening developments for Alabama came late last year, when it was announced that Montgomery will finally open its first charter school later in 2019. Not only will they attempt to open one school, but an entire feeder system by which students can remain on track within the charter structure from elementary school to junior high and eventually to high school.

Led by the Montgomery Education Foundation, these charters are known as conversion charters; they will see existing school facilities converted into charter schools with priority admission given to students already zoned for that campus. This is a good means of transitioning for charters in Montgomery Public Schools. Recent reports that Birmingham City Schools will be voting on allowing a charter school in the Woodlawn neighborhood in east Birmingham are also encouraging for similar reasons, though that potential charter would be a new school altogether.

There are several reasons why I find this news is heartening, but perhaps the biggest one is what it says about leadership in Montgomery. It indicates that State Superintendent Eric Mackey, who approved the charter for the new system, is willing to take advantage of new tools to try and option to improve education opportunities for students in our state, despite the vehement disagreement of some within the education establishment. 

Another leader who deserves a lot of credit here is State Sen. David Burkette, a newly-elected Democrat from Montgomery whose presence and comments at the charter school announcement were particularly noteworthy. Burkette told Alabama Daily News reporter Caroline Beck that he wanted to give the new charter conversion system a chance.

“We’ve continued to travel down the old path and tried plan A, B, and C but now it’s time to try plan D,” Burkette said. “You can’t go wrong in this situation because it’s not just for the benefit of this community but it helps move all of Alabama forward. It is high time for us to take a stance and look at the direction we have come from and try to get to the direction we want to get to for the future.”

One needn’t be a political scientist to understand the ramifications of a Democratic senator from Montgomery supporting school choice. It was bold and refreshing. This sort of leadership has been desperately needed in Alabama for a very long time. (I join Sen. Burkette’s colleagues in wishing him a speedy recovery from a recent hospitalization

If these new charters in Montgomery and, hopefully, Birmingham prove successful, it will be a fine example to the rest of the state that alternatives to traditional public school can work and work well.  There are still a number of politicians in both parties, to say nothing of voters themselves, who remain skeptical of any deviation from the traditional public school model, and so the success of these new charter schools will go a long way towards changing hearts and minds around the state.

There is always a certain amount of risk with any new development, and charter schools are no different.  Not every school will succeed, a point often driven home by opponents of charters. Yet that fact is a convenient gloss over the more stark reality that too many public schools are already failing.  I know full well that fewer schools in Alabama are failing according to the metrics laid out by the Alabama Accountability Act, and we should all be glad for that. Even so, there is the persistent issue that too many schools are simply not doing enough.  

Of course, schools cannot provide everything a child needs for life, not should we want or expect them to. I’ve hammered this point home in this space repeatedly over the last year. Children need the nurturing and structure that family and community provide, and the more we encourage and cultivate those separate but complementary elements outside of school the less time school personnel will have to devote to them inside the school. Organs of civil society should remember this. So should everyone else who criticizes the school system before volunteering at the local Boys and Girls Club. 

From a policy standpoint, education reform advocates like me have argued for years that more choice and transparency in education forces all institutions to be better while respecting the humanity of parents and students by allowing them to have some options, therefore some say-so, in their education. 

Alabama’s long-awaited foray into school choice through charter schools and accountability scholarships corresponds with the proliferation of a simple A through F school grading system by which parents and communities can better evaluate how their schools and school systems are performing. Combined, these reforms can be a powerful motivator, especially in areas where schools have struggled or not performed as well as the community expects. When parents have both the knowledge about how their child’s school is performing and the awareness that other options now exist, they begin to be in the driver’s seat for demanding better opportunities. 

It is those options that make charter schools such an important development.  Of course we live in a time where are our options are limitless and we are too often struck with analysis paralysis.  Which channel should we watch? Which coffee should I order? Which pair of jeans should I buy? Yet it is those options that recognize that we are unique individuals, made differently and worthy of respect on an individual basis.  When our government offers one – and only one – solution with a strict intransigence towards change, it treats parents and children like widgets – bricks in a wall, you might say – who can simply be shuffled from one place to the next with no regard for their unique character.  We know this is false, and we should reject it at every turn.

Charter schools are not the only solution. Indeed, they are only one tool in an ever-expanding education toolbox. But that are useful solution in many circumstances, and our leaders are right to give charters a chance. Let’s  give everyone involved – parents, students, educators – more freedom and flexibility to pursue education at the highest level.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.

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