The DeHavilland Blog

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Unclear on the concept

I came across a post on one of the premiere education blogs, The Education Wonks, that perpetuates incorrect information on a basic tool in education reform: the charter school. Highlighting a news article that, in their words, highlights a victory for those who want to use public funding to support privately-operated charter schools, they write:

If a private school gets public money, does that mean that those institutions (as is the case with traditional public schools) must teach all children? Or can they exclude those children who are behavior problems or have learning disabilities? (As is the case with traditional private schools.)

Food for thought.

I don't think they're trying to intentionally mislead (although that was my first impulse, as my comment on their site indicates). I've found them to be honest and fair-minded over time, and can't see them trying to deceive their readers.

But the fact is, charters are public schools, and continued efforts to characterize them as an evil scheme to pull badly needed resources away from public education are unfair and incorrect.

What's discouraging to me is that reformers have done such a poor communications job that even opinion leaders like The Education Wonks are unclear on a basic concept like charter schools. The public is similarly misinformed, as seen by this from the 2006 PDK/Gallup survey:

Although charter schools are public schools, many people do not think of them as such, because they operate outside the traditional K-12 structure. The two charter questions in this year's poll explore public support for the idea of charter schools and public understanding of the nature of such schools. The second question is new and was asked because public comments on charters often reflect a lack of understanding of the concept.

Findings. Public approval of charter schools has climbed from 42% in 2000 to 53% in 2006. This finding must be weighed against responses indicating that the concept is not clearly understood. Here are some comparisons:
  • 39% of respondents say charter schools are public schools; 53% say they are not (fact: they are public schools).
  • 50% say charters are free to teach religion; 34% say they are not (fact: they are not).
  • 60% say charters can charge tuition; 29% say they cannot (fact: they cannot).
  • 58% say charters can base student selection on ability; 29% say they cannot (fact: they cannot).
Conclusion VIII. Those who would implement the charter school concept should ensure that the public has a clear understanding of the nature of such schools.

The takeaway: we will never be able to reform education if our communication efforts are so weak that even education insiders don't know what we're doing, let alone the public.

(Extra credit: if you want to educate yourself on the basics of charter schools, this Wikipedia entry is a good start. Would you be surprised to learn that charters were the brainchild of the head of the American Federation of Teachers?)


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