Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Investing in Our Children

Recently, I heard someone say that the cure for Utah's Public Education problem rests in the support and creation of public charter schools. Now, this isn't a post about public charter schools, because I don't mind charter schools. I would like to have more research about them and how they will impact education funding for a regular public school... but right off the top, they don't send me running for the hills.

What really caught my attention, however, was that this person was talking about charter schools as the "cure" for Utah's Public Education woes. I had to stop and think... what is the problem with Utah Education, anyway? Is it so broken that we have to throw out all the public schools and start over?

Charter schools are public schools open to all students. They operate on public funds without tuition, just like a regular public school. From what I can see as an outsider, the main difference between a charter school and a regular public school is the level of parental involvement in the child's education. Charter schools are generally started by parents who want more input in their child's learning, and want more input regarding the curriculum taught within the school.

So is that it? Is that the problem? Not enough parental involvement?

To try to understand what the perceived problem is, I did some more research. I figured that the best way to determine what is going wrong is to look at how well (or poorly) Utah students are doing. What surprised me, is that in spite of Utah's blatant refusal to fully fund public education, at first glance it looks as though Utah students tend to perform *higher* than students in other states. It would appear that Utah teachers are doing a fabulous job with less resources than ever.

If you look at the data a little more closely, however, it begins to break down. For example, Utah students' writing scores are below average. And, when you separate the scores of our students based on things like ethnic group or economic status, our Caucasian students are below the national Caucasian average, our ethnic minority students are below the national ethnic minority average, and, the most startling of all, Utah students suffer from some of the largest achievement gaps in the country.

The Deseret news reported in July 2005:

"Achievement gaps between whites and minorities and the haves and have-nots have taken center stage under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Controversy erupted in Utah ...when the state challenged the federal law's reach in Utah schools. Advocates feared Utah would end up ignoring performance of ethnic minorities and other student groups; state education chiefs vowed that would not happen."

Utah's achievement gap is not anything new. Many Utah schools have been working for years to try to solve the problem. Unfortunately, they need more resources to do it, and some need better systems in place to reach the students who aren't performing well. I think the problem is also compounded by the myriad of federal regulations that tend to weigh down local schools, just making it more difficult for teachers to be successful.

This is all made worse by another problem: Utah is facing a teaching shortage in the next five years. 788 teachers are expected to retire this year. 1/2 of all teachers in Utah leave the profession within the first 5 years.

So while charter schools aren't necessarily a *bad* idea, I don't see how they will solve the achievement gap problem. Really, I think fully funding public education and working to educate all of Utah's children and help them to be successful is a completely different issue. Charter schools won't fix this problem, unless there are charter schools specifically geared to minority and underachieving students.

That brings me right back to my question... is it parental involvement that makes the difference? Maybe. But if the achievement gap occurs because of lack of parental involvement, then a charter school won't help, it would seem to reason that it is likely that the parents of the underachievers won't rally together to get the charter school started in the first place. It isn't necessarily because these parents are deadbeat parents, either. Chances are that moms and dads are are working two jobs just to make ends meet. They just don't have the *time* to be involved, no matter how much they would like to be.

I believe that every child deserves a quality education, whether or not their parents are highly involved. Some may not like that sentiment. The fact is, 90% of Utah's children attend public schools, and yet the Utah Public Education System continues to beg for every penny and the Utah legislature treats them like they don't deserve it.

A recent report by the Utah Foundation shows how dramatically our funding effort has decreased over the last 10 years. Basically, if we had at least kept up our funding effort, we would have $600,000,000 MORE dollars than we do now, or roughly $1,000,000 PER school. That's a lot of computers, teachers, books, etc. etc. etc. (See Paradox Lost: Utah's Public Education Funding Effort No Longer Surpasses the Nation)

So, when it comes to charter schools, I respectfully disagree. The cure to Utah's education problem does not lie within charter schools. The cure to Utah's education problem lies within fully funding it.


At 3:25 PM, Anonymous concerned said...

You should be aware however, that charter schools do NOT operate like regular public schools.

1)They do not have to follow the building codes and regulations that schools do.
2)While they are "open" to all, one may gain preferential enrollment by volunteering for certain committees or by being related.
3)Nepotism regulations do not apply
4)Parents are often required to volunteer at least 5 hours a month.
5)There is more leeway in enforcing attendance and behavioral policies. If the student misses 10 days at some charter schools, then he or she is gone.
6)There is more leeway in asking for fees and such. Some parents actually are asked if they might contribute a monthly amount to the schools.
7)Charter schools do not receive property tax funding, but DO get funding from other outside sources and the WPU from the state. They did account for 14% of the state educational budget last year.
8)Charter schools do not necessarily serve lunch or have buses (few do I believe).
9)Charter schools are not PUBLIC in the fact that their monies go towards paying off leases to developers.
10)Charter schools are governed by local appointed boards, some of which include some legislators.
11)Charter schools have much more leeway in policies than a local public school does.
12)Charter schools were originally supposed to be "laboratories of learning" within local school districts. They now are governed by a state charter school board, in essence, creating a totally separate school system.
13)Charter schools do not have boundaries.
14)Charter school students who go back to public schools in a school year do not take the money with them.
15)Charter schools don't necessarily have to pay things like state retirement payments to teachers.
16)Charter schools are allowed to set class sizes and often have teacher specialists and aides.

Just a few things. As a teacher, myself, though, I DO know they have a detrimental effect on the public schools. I have seen them become more and more political in recent years as opposed to the earlier years. I often hear "grass is greener on the other side" type things in choosing charter schools and some parents almost develop an air of "exclusiveness" about their school (we are better than you type of attitude). I have seen some people change not for the better and it's sad to see. The reality is that NO ONE is any better than the other. We ALL have our strengths and weaknesses.

At 4:41 PM, Blogger Emily For Utah Senate 28 said...

Thank you for your thorough and detailed comments. Thank you for making it all very clear regarding how charter schools work.

The person who said "Charter Schools are the answer" is one of my opponents, and as I have always said and will continue to say, we need to make public schools the *best* choice for Utah's children.

Thank you for checking in.


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