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Traditional Public Versus Charter Schools
Do Charters Supplant Traditional Schools?

I wasn’t sure Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wanted to be at a gathering of the National School Board Association on January 28th in Washington, D.C. He talked so fast one would have thought he had to catch an outbound train within the next five minutes.

NSBA members were asked to put their pitchforks away before Duncan spoke. But during the question period, Duncan got an earful on charter schools. School board members across the country see the charter school movement as undercutting public education. Duncan and the present administration are seen as being too closely aligned with the charter school movement.

When charter schools began in Minnesota in the 1990s, they were grassroots efforts, incubators of reform that served as testing grounds for innovations that could be incorporated into traditional public schools. Charter schools provided an outlet for children not served by traditional schools, but the bulk of students would remain within traditional public schools. That is no longer the case.

“The traditional urban public school system is broken, and it cannot be fixed. It must be replaced,” writes Andy Smarick in the 2012 book, The Urban School System of the Future. “The replacement must be a new ‘system of schools,’ governed by the revolutionary practices of chartering.”

Of course, recent studies have concluded that charter schools are not better and are often worse than traditional public schools, but that isn’t stopping charter cheerleaders from wanting to replace the whole public school system.

It is pretty difficult for traditional school and charter school folks to sit down and break bread when one group sees the other trying to put them out of business. Of course, many charter providers aren’t trying to dismantle traditional public schools, but who can one trust?

This brings us to the dilemma facing everybody when some members within the Milwaukee education reform group Milwaukee Succeeds, issued a statement asking all parties within the education community (traditional, charter and private schools) to get along for the sake of the children.

Milwaukee School Board President Michael Bonds and School Superintendent Gregory Thornton signed a statement of beliefs printed in the Sunday paper. But the majority of the school board saw this as a shift in policy without authorization of the school board. The differences between Bonds and Thornton with other school board members may be fairly minor. What is being questioned is the wisdom of signing the Milwaukee Succeeds’ position paper when some of the signers still support the creation of thousands of additional seats for children in charter schools outside of Milwaukee Public Schools. They are not that far from Smarick’s position of dismantling public education.

A week later, another group of community members signed a counter statement supporting traditional public education and rejecting the collaboration with charter and choice schools. Two Milwaukee school board members signed on: MPS Vice-President Larry Miller and MPS Director Annie Woodward.

Legally, a majority of a school board committee cannot collaborate outside of a public meeting. Thus other school board members could not be asked to sign the statement. I would have signed the statement with Miller and Woodward if it were legally possible. Other board members may have as well.

If one wants to see a community that already reflects Smarick’s vision, look to New Orleans. Today its public school board directly operates only six schools. Another dozen schools are district charters. But nearly 70schools in New Orleans are charters of the state through the state’s school “recovery” district. Today the New Orleans school district barely exists. Is that the fate for Milwaukee?

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