Charter Pulse

Selected readings on US charter schools

ALASKA: Get smart (Opinion)

charter-schools-busAround the country, advocates for choice observed national school choice week (January 27 to February 3). Many advocated for different options ranging from methods of grading to more charter school options and even a voucher system that would allow parents to send their students to private schools at least partially on the public dime.

In Anchorage, Jim Browder recently became the new superintendent and made a lot of changes early in his tenure, and the school choice debate seems to be even louder this year by people who think they might have more of a chance to make a real difference.

Many conservatives argue that school vouchers are the way to go. Those are the grandstanders jumping up and down screaming for privatization in every area of government. Representative Wes Keller (R-Wasilla) recently introduced a school voucher bill in the Alaska State Legislature.

I don’t think that privatization is the best answer in the world of education. I believe there is a lot of value to the structure and consistency of the public school system, however, there are some things we can do to foster choice within our public school system.

I see two real alternatives to the voucher system for Anchorage that will help parents have more of a voice in their children’s schools without hurting the current school district structure. One is encouraging more choice through the use of charter schools. The second is to elect school board members in proportional districts rather than the current “at-large” system that we currently utilize.

The charter school concept originated in 1988. Charter schools are public schools that receive funds per student to provide education but are left to pay for other activities within the school on their own. Since they are part of the public school system, they are not allowed to charge tuition. Many charter schools utilize federal grants, local sponsorship and different fundraising options to raise revenue.

One of the problems with charter schools is that many of them are difficult to get into because of high demand. These schools are often forced to use a lottery system to invite new students into their schools, leaving out hundreds of students. Anchorage currently has eight charter schools. If Anchorage created more charter school options then more students and parents could choose schools tailored towards their style of learning or subjects they want to concentrate on (whether it’s foreign languages, vocational and technical skills, science and math, or something else).

The next major thing that I believe Anchorage needs to change is the way we elect school board members. Currently, we elect all of our school board members in an “at large” election. This means that no matter where a person lives, they can sign up to run for any school board seat that they choose. This leaves parents and residents at a loss for who they should contact when they need to speak to “their” school board member.

Think about it this way: when we have a problem with our state or local government, we can reach out to either our state senator or representative or one of our assembly members (we should also change the system so that we only have one assembly member, but we will discuss that at another time). When we reach out to those elected representatives we know that they represent our area. That representative will know the unique challenges that Mt. View faces and Turnagain does not, for example, or they may understand the very different culture that is inherent in “Muldooners” that may not exist for those that live off O’Malley. Anchorage is a large and spread-out city with many different communities, and when we reach out to our elected officials it’s important to know that they are our neighbors and understand our community. Our school board should be no different.

David Nees, a current school board candidate for School Board Seat B, is collecting signatures for an initiative that may appear on the next ballot, which would change the charter to split the school board seats up into districts. The only real opposition from this idea comes from teacher’s unions, which know that if the residents have no investment in the individual school board seats, they can continue to pump money into candidates’ campaigns in every seat, which they can recruit city wide. They also know that there will be very little connection between residents and particular school board races since none of them are regional.

There are many different things we can do to fix education in Anchorage, some of them are rather complicated and will take years and maybe even decades to implement and some are simple fixes that we can do nearly overnight. These two are somewhere in the middle. They will take a little bit of work and dedication from both the residents of Anchorage and our elected officials; however I think they will both make a huge difference in the quality of choice and education in Anchorage.

Source: Anchorage Press – by Mike Dingman

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This entry was posted on February 7, 2013 by in Alaska, Charter Schools, School choice and tagged , , .

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