Beware the "Alternative System" for Public Education

Charter schools are not the enemy, but neither are traditional public schools--despite what you may have heard from Christopher Nelson last night. Mr. Nelson, who is the Managing Director of the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, presented at Sanford with Tammi Sutton, founder and Executive Director of KIPP: Eastern North Carolina. The event, titled “Creating Change Through Charter Schools,” touched on a number of issues, from how KIPP was started to its unique theory of change.

The true star of the evening was Ms. Sutton, who injected a contagious energy and passion into the discussion. She spoke of her unyielding commitment to the children in her community and why she, as someone who is “not a charter school advocate” believes so deeply in the work of her schools in eastern North Carolina.

What I found problematic about the program was Mr. Nelson’s discussion of the education reform movement; in particular, how he framed the role of charter schools vis-à-vis the traditional public school system. In his presentation he explained that a goal of the Fisher Fund is to create an alternative public school system, comprised, as I understood it, exclusively of high performing charter schools. Although he indicated support for collaboration between districts and charters, that type of relationship was only listed as a secondary goal for the organization. I take serious issue with this concept, as I do not believe that the creation of a parallel public school system is an effective mechanism for large-scale improvement.

In Washington, DC, nearly 50% of public school students attend public charter schools. In 2014, public charter school students only slightly out performed the District’s average on the DC CAS* and both systems still have proficiency rates below 60% for both math and reading. This idea of an alternative or parallel public school system is the reality in DC and it has yet to show a drastic departure from the trends seen in the traditional public schools. This is not meant to discredit the exceptional work of some charter schools and operators who do see impressive gains and outcomes. But, it is clear that as a large-scale system, DC charter schools are encountering many of the same issues that DCPS faces: scaling, human capitol, and funding.

I think it is dangerous to strive towards this alternative public school system because it will only replicate the status quo, instead of improving it. If we really want to create change, we need to create a system of collaboration that allows for the sharing of best practices and the ability to leverage innovations and successes at charters to strengthen traditional public schools.

* The DC Comprehensive Assessment System is the District’s measure of academic proficiency.


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