When it comes to the future of education, it is vital to look past slogans. Though the promise of additional “school choice” certainly sounds tempting, the devil is in the details. Some school reformers have illustrated the massive benefits that can come from innovative teaching styles and parental involvement. Unfortunately, school choice is also sometimes pushed as a goal itself as advocates work to expand the number of choices without enough concern for quality. Moving forward with changes in public schooling requires us to slow down and reevaluate how to make these “choices” the best they can be.
The “school choice” movement hasn’t passed Utah by and we can now begin to evaluate the practical effects it has had. One tenet of the movement is the expansion of “charter schools,” public schools run by non-governmental groups less beholden to bureaucracy. Utah has witnessed the massive growth of charter schools fueled in part by relatively lax laws governing them.
In theory, these charter schools are supposed to offer much-needed choice over traditional education options. It doesn’t always work as planned. Advocates rightly praise schools which encourage parental involvement in education, like the American Preparatory Academy. In some cases charter schools have been able to make genuine improvements on old teaching methods, but not all of Utah’s 100+ charter schools are idyllic. Many face significant challenges in their first few years of operation and struggle to top the test scores of traditional public schools. Many also forgo some parental involvement in favor of delegating to school-management companies, a practice which has been linked to lower student performance.
Utah’s rapid charter school expansion encourages us to revisit the reason why we want charter schools in the first place. School choice as a movement is about the ability to choose from diverse school options, each serving different needs. Advocates point to the possibility that these non-bureaucratic charter schools can enable truly diverse educational styles. The “choice” in school choice is then really about exploring new practices and meeting certain needs within a community.
Unfortunately Utah’s current charter laws allow charter development for its own sake, without enough care for particular needs being met. In terms of capacity, charter school enrollment growth is slowing and many of these schools are not filling up. The desperate need now is not for more schools, but for better learning experiences.
There is no doubt that many charter schools offer wonderful opportunities for students. It is often hard to make changes to dated public school practices, and Utah’s charters have been breaking new ground in many areas. At this point, however, we need to be able to separate the exemplars from the others and assist the charter schools that aren’t breaking new ground. Now that Utah has allowed charter schools to blossom, it is time to step back and see how we can make the whole process better.
Ultimately, it comes down to accountability. Although charter schools are given certain administrative freedoms, this is only done with the understanding that they will be able to deliver results. Utah does have a system in place for reviewing charter schools, but it has been extensively weakened over the years and doesn’t provide enough ways to assess the performance of these schools. Policies to allow for additional oversight have already been proposed by educators. In the same way that we hold public schools to a higher standard, we need to apply that same standard to the new charter schools that supplement them.
Parents and educators will have to make a lot of choices when it comes to the future of education and the kind of choices available are at stake. In contrast to an approach merely on quantity (offering more choices) I see quality as vital. If we want Utah charter schools to offer truly better choices for our students, it is important for the state to help improve the ones we have now to ensure they’re getting it right. Most of all, “school choice” means taking our time and ensuring these choices are the best that they can be.