Supporting School Choice

I wrote the following OP-ED, which appeared in the Omaha World-Herald on Wednesday, February 18, 2015.

School choice continues to be at the forefront of education reform, specifically charter schools.  I, along with the other Metropolitan Omaha Educational Consortium (MOEC) Superintendents, expect charter school conversations will take place during the upcoming legislative session.

My colleagues have asked that I share my experiences with school choice. These experiences include charter schools, voucher systems, open enrollment, dual credit options, choice-driven desegregation plans, and private/parochial schools.  What I have learned from my involvement is that the factors driving the success of any choice program are similar to what drives the success of a public school.  Achievement in any educational setting begins with highly qualified and committed teachers who engage students in a rich learning environment.  The governance of a school or school district rarely influences student achievement by itself.  Yes, structure is important, but to transform schools, we must set high expectations for students. We must provide comprehensive, readily available systems of support. We must develop and implement best learning practices that deepen students’ understanding of content and strengthen their ability to be independent life-long learners.

Recent studies at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, along with results in Michigan and Wisconsin, indicate that charter school outcomes are mixed at best. Last year, a Detroit Free Press investigative series highlighted that more than a billion dollars paid into charter school opportunities had not resulted in increased student achievement.  The Free Press also found that Michigan’s charter schools, as a whole, fared no better than traditional public schools in educating students in poverty.  Just as troubling, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that during a ten-year period, Wisconsin taxpayers paid $139 million dollars to schools that were ultimately terminated from a voucher program for failing to meet expectations and state requirements.

In my experience, the most successful charter schools were created by existing school districts and university systems.  My former district embedded a successful charter school within its high school. In contrast, I have not seen positive results when municipalities or outside agencies, not regulated in a similar fashion to public schools, were allowed to create charters. Too often charter schools syphon away both funding and students from an already cash-strapped public school system.

When charters were first created, they were designed to be incubators of educational innovation.  The hope was that the best ideas discovered at charter schools could eventually be replicated in public schools, leading to transformation throughout an entire system. Unfortunately, this original concept was weakened and charters instead ended up competing with public schools.  Sharing best practices, while a noble intention, simply did not occur in either direction. Further, charter schools have frequently failed to change the basic model of educating students.

However, through the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, a vehicle exists – called the Focus School concept – that allows Learning Community Districts to collaborate and develop innovative ideas. Unfortunately, only one focus school has been created since the Learning Community came into existence and is now supported by OPS.

Other choice opportunities also exist locally beginning with Omaha Public School’s many magnet programs as well as an OPS partnership with University of Nebraska-Omaha where students earn dual credit while they prepare to attend the University. Further, Millard and Papillion-LaVista operate student academies such as the Zoo School housed at the Henry Doorly Zoo.  Lastly, several districts collaborate and enroll students at the University of Nebraska Medical Center during their junior and senior years of high school in preparation for careers in medicine.

With the proper nurturing and funding mechanisms, additional focus schools and student academies could be created, and charter schools, as defined in other states, would be unnecessary.

Furthermore, I believe the concept of Innovation Zones, which are now in use in multiple states, is a concept worth examining. All schools within Innovation Zones are more likely to be transformed by implementing rich learning environments and not by creating additional governance structures. By collaborating with the Nebraska Department of Education and by removing regulatory obstacles for all schools, not just charter or voucher schools, all schools are encouraged to innovate and achieve excellence.  This kind of freedom sparks the best new educational ideas to transform learning.

Encouraging the transformation of learning through technology is also a factor. It helps to personalize education by encouraging academic engagement, by promoting deep learning, and by allowing students to learn at their own pace.  This kind of learning helps every student, but is especially galvanizing for students living in poverty.

Creating learning settings that encourage students to follow their interests and passions in a flexible environment is the type of choice that will lead to improved results. Rich learning environments in all schools, not just selected ones, will nurture our next generation. These young people will have the capacity to solve the complex issues facing our society in government, the economy, and at home.

Rich, customized learning approaches provide the ultimate educational choice.