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David Reynolds: Unchartered waters

Learning is taking a trip on unchartered waters. You know where you wish to go, but you don’t know how best to get there. Should there be more public school charters granted by the Commonwealth? If so, where? (Rockbridge County Public Schools is currently reviewing a charter school application.)

Those are two tough questions. Yes, public charter schools are a good idea. Yes, charters have allowed an approach to learning that has proven successful in hundreds of public schools across this nation. And, yes, a granddaughter attends one. She loves it. So do her parents.

So, what’s the problem? Let’s do it. The Commonwealth’s political stars are aligned.

Not so fast. If education could be speeded up, we would not have four-year colleges. Little minds are not experimental playgrounds. That’s why we don’t jump on and off bandwagons when the destination is learning. We know about those nasty little devils in the details and all those unintended consequences. So we ask questions, not necessarily to get any final answers, but to determine whether the trip is worth taking.

There are hurdles facing the establishment of any public charter school, mainly funding, location, and meeting special students needs. But most of all: community involvement and parental support.

When I hear that there are delays in establishing a charter, I am not discouraged. It takes time to get a community involved. Our kids took nine months to hatch, so why not spend at least that amount of time to determine how best to educate them?  And in education, the process determines the final product.

In the great debate over education, Americans, in their typical rush to judgment, tend to blame either (a) politicians for not adequately funding our schools or (b) our kids for not always taking full advantage of the educational resources those politicians have provided. This blame game never works. The answer is (c), those who brought the kids into this world and then considered their job to be over. Studies show that it is the link between parent and child that most determines how well one does in school — not the money, not the kids.

Get the parents involved in their kid’s school and the kid will do better in the classroom. Interjecting third parties, such as well meaning education foundations, can interfere with this process. While providing additional funds, foundations diffuse responsibility. Direct responsibility is necessary for any successful operation. The old Parents-Teachers Association was built on this concept. There’s nothing wrong with a PTA bake sale.

There is another point that I need to get off my chest. It is the subject of federal grants. Public charters are often the recipient of large federal grants, usually earmarked for startup costs. In Washington, we used to call such grants “sucker grants.” You suck a state or locality into a program or activity by providing initial operating costs. And then the plug is pulled. Washington ends up getting what it wants, power and influence over another aspect of our lives, while the locality ends up paying for continuing costs after the grant money dries up. Or worse, the grant money pushes out local involvement. “Let the feds do it” becomes the mantra.

As you can gather, there is much more to say on this subject. Hopefully, reasonable and informed people will. After all, the subject of education never goes away. Or maybe you are satisfied with our public schools. I and millions of others are not. We believe that all those short people we love to hug need a better shot if they are to stand tall in tomorrow’s more demanding world. Translation: Let’s set sail. Look what Columbus found sailing unchartered waters. How can we face our kids and tell them that we punted the ball away when there was an opportunity to score a touchdown?


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