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Who Can Wait?

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By Jeanne Allen
Huffington Post
October 4, 2011

One of several path-breaking movies to hit the mainstream theatres last year, Waiting for Superman educated thousands about the plight of U.S. schools. It conveyed the urgency of the problem, clarified the crisis, and sought to engage a nation. Most who saw it were shocked, and many made a silent vow to fight to eradicate the causes of such dismal failure in schools. But despite the push, the reality and the passion it engaged in us, for too many, when the movie was over, it was back to business as usual. For too many children, there is more waiting.

Too many state leaders are still failing to do what they can to put laws to work in the best interest of kids. They boast of “sound processes,” “collaboration,” and various interpretations of law. They avoid the “fierce urgency of now” when making decisions.

Take the decision by the NJ State Department of Education this week to approve only 4 of 58 charter school applications to open these new independent public schools to provide hope for upwards of 2,000 children who are currently without quality options. What of the thousands more children whose lives remain compromised by school buildings that have little but noise happening every day? Had the charter school movement begun in 1991 with the same adherence to process and so-called qualitative review, there might be barely a few hundred schools open today in perhaps a fraction of states. Like any movement, the early pioneers of this one were willing to take risks and, with Toquevillesque resolve, engage more citizens in the act of educating well our youth outside of conventional organizations that had been set up — and since begun to fail — to do so.

New York charter schools, while on the rise, are also compromised by adult concerns that have no bearing on how well a child is educated. In one of those late night compromises nearly two years ago, lawmakers traded a cap lift for a ban on management firms that manage charter schools. Despite being a capitalistic nation that yes, still draws its independence and wealth from free market successes despite Wall Street’s taint, it is now illegal in the Empire state to hire a for-profit education company to manage a school, even if that school has an accountability contract with the state. Victory Schools and National Heritage Academies have done remarkable things with children in the poorest centers of the state and yet, only a few slots remain for such companies because instead of living on philanthropy they live on their own capital investments and reinvestments. They have partnered with groups like 100 Black Men or 100 Hispanic Woman to create new schools. We must continue to give these and others a chance to do what traditional schools have failed to do. We can’t wait.

When suburban parents in New Jersey balk about the creep of charter schools into their districts, policymakers should not retreat for fear of reprisal. They should face them down. When too many kids are likely to spend another year in schools that do nothing for their future, it is time to open more, not fewer, charter schools. Not sure those charters can do well? Give them other choices, like scholarship to attend private schools that have served generations from the most disadvantaged backgrounds well, for generations. But give them something.

Charter schools are the most important vehicle today within public education for doing so, and in this world of standards, assessments, public information and accountability for results, there are guideposts and heavy responsibilities that schools need to meet. But when we lose sight of the fact that even our highest performing schools started as no name, local players, we lose site of the purpose of the reform movement, which charters have helped to create by their ability to operate in distinct ways. The dozens of great management organizations running schools today, whose founders and early educators started with no name in education, no public accomplishment, and perhaps an unconventional background — from KIPP, to Achievement First, to Charter Schools USA to Democracy Prep and more — were given a chance to thrive, to learn on the job, and to excel at educating children. Those who claim to support the reforms they now administer need to remember that they too started as neophytes. They weren’t born a quality product, but they were born with the potential.

In fact, the very people who the charter movement was born to challenge always believed they were right because they had the jobs they had. The conventional wisdom said that if you didn’t work for a state or local education entity, you couldn’t possibly know what was best for schools, or what real education meant. They were experts because they worked there and talked to others like them. But it turned out, they were wrong. A lot. And what they were wrong about — from whether money is the answer to class sizes to how one can hold even the poorest children to high standards to the notion that tenure may have caused the mediocrity of the teaching profession — is now clear to many (though not most). And yet, that same attitude of superiority that once was only limited to the education establishment is now making a come back in education policy decisions in even the reformiest administrations! As someone who once worked in government and saw people change in a few short months, I should not be surprised. But I am alarmed.

Making distinctions at the highest levels of government about what works and doesn’t for kids is like allowing the president to pick the members of Congress, rather than allowing us to make that decision every few years. The education crisis looms large and more must be done to stem the tide of failure we’ve allowed to rise. More must be done — more choices, more changes… more.

We can’t wait.