Charter school? Wrong question. Right question: Is it good?

This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on April 25, 2017. Please click here to read the original post. 

Within education circles in Houston, there are often two mindsets about school reform. There are those who long to return to the last century and reminisce fondly about the days when your school was determined solely by your address.

Others celebrate the freedom of school choice and would gladly do away with neighborhood schools altogether.

Though these differences might feel urgent for educators and policymakers, there are two other stakeholders who are often not included in policy debates: Parents and employers.

When parents consider whether to send their children to a particular school, they want to know practical information, such as safety, academic performance, quality of teachers and leaders, ease of the commute, which careers students pursue when they graduate. Rare from parents are questions about whether it’s a traditional public, public charter, public magnet, or any other type of school.

Houston parents want a great school for their children. Period. They don’t care how it’s governed; they want to know whether there is space for their child.

Houston employers also have simple needs when it comes to finding talent. Employers are looking for workers who possess specialized industry skills, possess honesty and integrity, work hard and collaborate well. Like parents, Houston employers aren’t concerned whether a potential hire attended a traditional public school, public charter, magnet or private school.

What if we followed the lead of parents and employers and started thinking in simpler terms about how to improve public education in Houston?

Rather than polarizing choices between privatizing the system or fixing school districts by focusing solely on public charters, we could commit to increasing the availability of great schools in all neighborhoods to meet the demands of parents and employers.

This might sound naïve, but there is one thing I’ve learned in more than 25 years of working to improve school outcomes in Houston: No one solution or program will fix everything. Great schools are the unit of change, and we’ve got to have more of them, of all types, especially in our underserved neighborhoods where parents by the tens of thousands are on district magnet and public charter waitlists.

Fortunately, we’re not starting from scratch, as there are many examples across Houston of high-quality schools, whether district schools, public charters, private schools or other hybrid models, that are beating the odds and producing strong outcomes for all students.

The problem is that we don’t have enough seats to enroll the number of kids who need – and want – to attend. How can we remove the barriers and increase the number of great schools in Houston?

Here are three ideas we can try right now.

1) Educators and policymakers need to stop debating and start working together. Everyone involved in education in Houston, including district leaders, charter leaders (including me, too), elected officials, private school advocates and education philanthropists must pivot from arguing with each other and begin the important work of starting more great schools.

From Spring Branch to Aldine to Grand Prairie to San Antonio, there are promising signs across Texas that educators can put aside their policy differences to work together for the common good of all children.

2) We’ve got to find ways to recruit and retain more high-quality teachers and leaders. The most important ingredients of a great school are its teachers and its leadership.

Our local universities and alternative certification providers produce some talented teachers and leaders, but they are not enough. We need additional talent pipelines like Teach For America, Relay Graduate School of Education, and others to attract and keep the best possible teachers and leaders for our schools.

3) We should find ways for public charter schools to grow in partnership with local school districts. There are currently ISD schools and public charter schools in Houston – including KIPP, YES College Prep, and others – that are outperforming state averages with underserved populations.

It makes sense for these networks to grow in response to parent demand and results. But charters and school districts also need to work together to share ideas, resources and best practices and to scale the impact of these innovations to benefit more students.

In the end, no one will remember what type of school it was that helped Houston’s students meet their full potential. But history will record if we continue to ignore lessons learned, stay in our silos and let our children down by failing to deliver the education they expect and deserve.

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