Fighting about public schools … and what to do about it

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By John Garen, Ph.D.

We fight a lot over public schools. And I’m not talking about food fights in the lunch room, either.

In Scott County, there’s been a contentious dispute recently about whether to build another high school.

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But this is just the tip of the iceberg regarding quarrels of this sort. Prayer in school, dress codes, sex education, sports versus academics, support for various extracurricular programs, lunch menus and textbooks form just a short list of public-school issues at the center of much controversy.

Sadly, this is a predictable outcome of our public-education system. It imposes one-size-fits-all policies for everyone in the district.

No wonder there are disputes! The only way you can get what you want for your kids is to engage in the public quarrel. And if you lose – well, that’s just too bad.

Of course, no one gets their way on everything in life, but with public schools, you may not get what’s right for your kids even on the big things.

People disagree on what they consider to be the big things and if you are in the minority, you lose. But it can be even worse. I may like the emphasis on social-science curriculum, but not the discipline policy. You may feel the opposite. Both of us are unhappy.

Many parents will feel as though they are saddled with a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea: Either send the kids to an inappropriate public school or suffer a financial burden by paying twice to get a more suitable private-school option.

Sometimes the only option available for parents is to pay once for private tuition and again in taxes for public schools not used.

Collectively, it’s bound to produce tension in the community. Instead of serving as a unifying force – as advocates of the present system contend – the public schools become a source of friction.

What’s needed is broader choice for parents and the encouragement for schools to open to serve varied choices. I applaud school districts that attempt to offer this through options such as magnet schools. However, this option usually is very limited and serves only a small group of

Fortunately, help could be on the way.

The House Education Committee recently held a hearing to consider a proposal that would allow charter schools in Kentucky. The policy contained in House Bill 77 would allow parents, teachers and public or private organizations to obtain a “charter” to open a school to serve a particular educational need.

Since funding follows the student, charter schools survive only by attracting enough parents to enroll their kids. Money is not wasted on bad schools incapable of convincing parents to enroll their kids.

With a sound and flexible charter law, educational entrepreneurs can open schools where they perceive a need – and survive only if they attract the support of parents.

This approach eliminates the need for divisive community debates. Various schools can offer different options; some parents will choose one while others will select something else – and we don’t have to argue about it.

Debates swirl about the effectiveness of charter schools. Some contend they are no better than regular schools while others maintain that they are shown to have strong, positive effects.

My own reading of the evidence is that the most careful and credible studies show positive effects. Moreover, all of these studies do not account for the beneficial effects of charters on kids’ behavior and attitudes.

But another important benefit of charters and broader school-choice options is that they would go a long way toward removing a big source of community discord and contentious public debate.

Bring charter schools to Kentucky, and won’t have to fight about public schools anymore.

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