Steve Jobs, the late co-founder and CEO of Apple, Inc., once said that “Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity, not a threat.” He understood that if a good or service does not innovate, it never adapts to the ever-changing needs of the consumer.
That principle applies to the current state of public education.
Of all the issues surrounding the changing status of public education, none has rocked the boat like charter schools. The Fordham Institute recently highlighted the increase in families choosing tuition-free public charter schools because they desire innovative programs that meet their children’s specific needs.
The financial assistance to support that innovation is provided by the federal Charter Schools Program, which rewards high-performing charter schools with money to identify new facilities and fund national initiatives.
Unfortunately, opponents such as the Network for Public Education want to eliminate the program, and thus hinder the creation of charter schools despite their popularity and success. These charter school opponents use the same rhetoric employed by other education choice opponents, blaming many of the issues plaguing traditional public schools on the creation and expansion of educational options.
They often ignore how charter schools and other choice options are raising the success of all students in public education while eliminating socioeconomic barriers that contribute to achievement and opportunity gaps. They propagate the notion that students in a particular ZIP code have a lesser likelihood of being successful in school and moving on to post-secondary education.
This is most evident in Florida. Florida in 2020 received $78.3 million in Charter Schools Program funding over five years.
Florida demonstrates how increasing education options for parents will result in higher performance for all students. Approximately 1.5 million students in Florida (45% of all K-12 students) exercise some form of education choice, and charter schools are the most popular alternative for families (more than 329,000 students).
Over the last 25 years in Florida, charter school students have outperformed district students on state and national tests. Additionally, according to the Florida Department of Education, in 2018, 94% of charter schools scored a “C” or better, and 189 schools were considered high performing. Of the state’s 655 charter schools, almost half (47%) scored an “A” on the accountability school grade report.
Charter schools fulfill the individual needs of underserved populations with greater success rates. In fact, according to the Florida Charter School Alliance, 62% of charter students are black or Hispanic, and 55% of charter students receive free or reduced lunches.
This success would not be possible without the federal Charter Schools Program.
As a former charter school principal who opened a brand-new charter school, I can attest that the Charter Schools Program grant was essential to offset the mounting costs of operating expenses. The school provided families the opportunity to explore science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, in addition to a dual-language immersion program tuition-free to families and irrespective of ZIP code. These funds allowed me to market our innovative program while also attracting a highly qualified and diverse teaching staff.
Even stronger than my passion as a 14-year K-12 educator and administrator in both traditional and charter public schools is my desire for my two sons to have equitable options that meet their individual needs and are adequately funded.
I recall being a student who qualified for free- and reduced-price lunch with limited education choice options. I remember not being pushed by high expectations and being in classes where teachers were satisfied with the status quo. Education choice saved me from mediocrity and inspired me to achieve postsecondary education.
I have the same expectations for my children.
We live in a suburban neighborhood with high-performing public schools. But it was evident early on that these schools would not be able to meet the unique needs of my children.
Both of my sons are in schools of choice, but for different reasons. My older son has autism; my younger son is gifted. I remember his kindergarten teacher calling and stating he was misbehaving in school. During that conversation, we realized that he was finishing his work early and becoming disengaged while she was helping the students who struggled. He was acting out of boredom. He was disconnected from the school learning environment.
And then we received hope.
A new charter school was opening in our neighborhood that touted rigorous curriculum, innovative programs, and a diverse environment.
The issue? Like most families who are looking for alternative educational options, we were forced on a waiting list because the school was at capacity. It was disheartening.
Charter schools at full capacity illustrate why Charter Schools Program funds are so essential. More funding would permit the construction of additional high-performing charter schools so parents would not have to wait for a quality education.
It took two years on the waiting list for our son to receive this opportunity. Some families, particularly low-income ones, may have a longer wait.
We must support the federal Charter Schools Program because it provides the resources to build more charter schools so marginalized families will have equitable access and funding for programs that meet their children’s individual needs. It will fuel the innovation that is necessary to adapt public education to the changing landscape.
If not, opportunity will stay on the waiting list.