The Journal Gazette
Sunday, August 25, 2019 1:00 am

From opposition to engagement

As charter school options increase, public education boosters need a better understanding

Joni Schmalzried

We have spent enough time being enraged about charter schools; let's engage.

Since the appointment of Betsy DeVos as U.S. education secretary in 2017, we have been inundated with information and opinions regarding the state of charter schools – locally, statewide and nationally.

The Journal Gazette has published a number of editorials and letters addressing the crisis.

I have been among the charter school skeptics. However, when given this opportunity, and with the advice of some trusted colleagues, I decided to take a different spin and look at what we know and have learned about the state of charter schools in Indiana.

I definitely own (and still have a few) opinions of what is wrong with charter schools (I have been in public education for 35 years). However, when asked to step back and look at it a bit differently, I found many things worth considering.

Most important is that we know and remain educated about the overall logistics of charter schools.

Fact: A charter school is a public school that operates under a contract, or charter, between the school's organizer and charter school authorizer.

Fact: There are several ways a charter school can be authorized.

Three of the eight authorizers in Indiana oversee most of the state's charter schools.

Fact: Charter schools and voucher schools are not the same thing; they are funded differently.

Fact: Not all charter schools are failing or “on the take.” There are some strong-performing charter schools in Indiana.

Fact: Charter schools often have more autonomy than traditional public schools.

Fact: Too much autonomy can lead to a lack of accountability (but not always).

Fact (with some opinion thrown in): School choice is probably not going away; we need to talk about how our systems work together.

Fact: As of 2018, 24 charter schools in Indiana either decided to close on their own or were closed by their authorizers, according to Chalkbeat.

Opinion: I stand by traditional public schools, but that does not mean that there are not good charter-school options. (Again, we need to educate ourselves about what and where those are.)

My professional focus has been in the field of disabilities and education. I have been, and will continue to be, concerned about the needs that students with disabilities have, and whether they can successfully be served in a charter school setting.

During the 2018-19school year, 40,814 students were enrolled in 103 registered charter schools; 6,823 of those students were identified with some type of disability (16.7% of the charter school population). There were a total of 1,141,248 students enrolled overall in the state of Indiana, which means that roughly 3.6% of all students attended Charter Schools. Students with disabilities accounted for 170,209 (overall), which is close to 15% of the total school aged population.

As a public school entity, charter schools are required to provide services to students who are identified with a disability.

The Office of Special Education Programs informs us that the enrollment numbers of students with disabilities and the proportion by disability is similar in traditional public and public charter schools. Challenges faced by charter schools when working with students with disabilities include difficulty funding and providing the mandated continuum, legal status ambiguity and lack of technical expertise. On the flip side, well-run charter schools provide parent choice, the opportunity to blend learning environments and the ability to provide innovative practices.

The real debate should not be about whether all charter schools are bad or whether or not all traditional public schools are good. All educational entities need the highest level of accountability when we are talking about our students (and future adults, business owners, employees and community members). The landscape of charter schools continues to change. We should be looking at who is doing what well, to determine what can be replicated, shared, or changed. “There are good and bad in both kinds of schools; the important focus should be on learning from those that are really serving all students well, ” writes Sandi Cole of the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community.

As “Schoolhouse Rock” taught us, knowledge is truly our greatest power. 

Joni Schmalzried, who has a doctorate in education, is chief program officer for the AWS Foundation.

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