My daughter attends a charter school, the same charter school her older sisters attended, and the same charter school where I was on the board for 10 years. Obviously I support charter schools.
But let me provide a little context here. I live in a city where our school district is in a state of disarray. When we bought our house nearly 19 years ago, we heard disheartening statistics like "50 percent dropout rate." We heard things like "gang activity in the hallways" and "armed guards and metal detectors at the doors." This varies from school to school even within our district, obviously; but nothing in the past 19 years has altered significantly my impression of the overall look of public education in my city.
Our options for our children's education were to send them to a private school, let them attend the city schools, homeschool, or send them to an alternative publicly funded school. As fate and fortune had it, we had that option. Greater Brunswick Charter School had been approved in 1998, in the first wave of charter schools permitted under the state act authorizing charter schools. Charter schools were controversial even then. Highland Park sued successfully to delay the school's opening by a year over the funding issue.
Charter schools are publicly funded entities, created by a special charter granted its board of trustees by the state Department of Education. They are governed by the same regulations as other public schools, are not allowed to discriminate in their admissions process, and if they fail to meet state standards of education, they can be subject to closure.
The entire push behind charter schools is that they are committed to the education of their students without the constraints of the local board of education and its accustomed way of doing things. With that freedom, and with state oversight, they are free to re-invent the wheel, potentially to discover a better design, a more durable model, something that spins more easily and turns more readily. This new wheel, the thinking goes, can lead to be a better bicycle and make learning a better and easier experience for every student.
Think about your own experiences in public schooling. While we're all justly proud of the way our schools prepared us for our careers, and while we also remember particular teachers with great fondness, if we're honest we also can remember the frustration we felt with struggling to understand material that was too difficult for us. We remember the passions that we weren't allowed to indulge because they were too advanced for our classmates, and we remember the sheer agony of having to sit at a desk when we needed to move, to be quiet when we needed to talk and to be in one grade when our best friends were in another.
GBCS was founded by a group of parents in New Brunswick, Highland Park and Edison who dreamed of a school that was built around the interests, needs and learning styles of each student. When it opened its doors, the school had classrooms with students from multiple grade levels.
Instruction was designed to allow students to pursue each subject at their individual learning level so that a student who came to kindergarten already reading could partner with a first-grader who was struggling; and a math-savvy second-grader could tackle fractions if she already had mastered multiplication.
Learning not only was personalized, it was project-based, so that a girl who was passionate about pirates could make a pirate ship from a shoebox if she wanted, and present it alongside the boy who wanted to talk about dinosaurs. And in those lower grades especially, the floor plan was open. Children could do their math at a desk, or lying on the floor.
Over the decade that I was on the school's board of trustees, we've had to make some changes to how we do things because we found that they weren't working as well as we had hoped they would. Most classes are now mostly single-grade, with the chief exception being middle school and "specials" like art, music and gym classes.
But we also made some pretty bold innovations along the way. Because our school is located in New Brunswick, we've come demographically to resemble the city as well. We have a sizeale number of students who come to the charter school who speak Spanish at home and who know little if any English.
Five years ago, we instituted a dual language immersion program that now immerses everyone entering our school in kindergarten in a Spanish-speaking environment one week and in an English-speaking environment the next year. The result is that each student who attends GBCS is becoming more fluent and more literate not just in English but in Spanish as well.
That sort of innovation is the reason behind the first wave of charter schools in our state, and the things we have learned are things we have shared with other public schools -- another purpose of charter school education.
As a public charter school, GBCS has always made it a priority to educate each of our children in a financially responsible way. As a trustee of the board, I personally worked with our teachers union over three consecutive cycles of contract negotiations to reach a collective bargaining agreement that honored the commitment and service of our teachers without jeopardizing the fiscal health of our school.
With those staff members and with our administrators, we have kept our obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, No Child Left Behind and other state and federal regulations and have never turned away a student who was eligible to receive a free public education in New Jersey
Somewhere along the line, as too often is the case with reform movements, enterprising individuals saw the opportunity to link charter schools with privatized education. Arguing that anything in the public sector would perform better if it were a private sector enterprise with a profit motive, they began pushing for-profit charter schools, and those schools in turn have found ways to cut costs in order to maximize profits for their shareholders.
That in turn has inflamed popular passions against charter schools as students have paid the price of these cost-saving measures, like fewer teachers, and the elimination of the arts in favor of the sciences.
The appointment of Betty DeVos, who favors privatized charter schools over public education, is something that truly worries me. During her testimony to the U.S. Senate, she betrayed a frightening lack of understanding of pedagogy and basic education law, including a school's obligations under IDEA.
Her ideas, which essentially amount to dismantling the public school system that 90 percent of Americans enjoy and have benefited from, would undo centuries of public policy in educating children and turn it over not to concerned parents working to provide healthier alternatives to schools that genuinely are struggling, but to corporate privateers with an eye on making money at the expense of those children.
As the record shows, I am a supporter of public charter schools. They're a proud and important part of America's public education legacy to the world.
But in confirming Ms. DeVos to lead the U.S. Department of Education, the Senate and Vice President Michael Pence have failed us all.
Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission. Views expressed herein belong to the writer alone and should not be considered the views of any institution he is associated with.