Charter schools are assets, not threats

Published 11:30 am Saturday, November 1, 2014

My children’s school hosted its first “SOL Preparation” meeting last week. While not surprised at the timing, I was a bit entertained. SOL testing happens in May, which makes this meeting a bit like putting up your Christmas tree in July. In this rite (which is repeated roughly five times per year), parents of students in grades 3-5 are lured with promises of free food and door prizes to a meeting where they are given strategies for success on the state tests. I understand that some kids struggle with the basics and that some of those kids come from homes where the parents need to be encouraged to be active participants in education. Ironically, those parents rarely attend these meetings, rendering the gatherings as another opportunity for well-meaning teachers and administrators to energetically “preach to the choir.”

My sister lives in Arizona and has never attended such a meeting. Her children attend a charter school that sends home a flyer a few weeks before the state tests are to be given notifying parents of the modified schedule for those days. They do little-to-nothing in class or at home as far as test-specific preparation yet their results far exceed ours; 90 percent or more their students pass the state tests.

Why are they able to do this? Arizona distributes resources much more effectively than Virginia does. In the Phoenix area there are so many charter schools that nearly every family in the valley can find a school that meets the needs of their children. They still have some standard-form, district-run schools, but even those schools have developed an identity. They specialize in recovery. They engage in the noble work of educating those children who lack strong parental support in the home. Arizona has a system of specialists where we have a system of general practitioners.

Imagine if we ran our medical facilities the same way. Each geographic area would be assigned to a doctor. Cancer, broken bones, plastic surgery, kidney failure and sniffles would all be treated by the same individual. That seems silly in medicine, but somehow it makes perfect sense in education. The fact of the matter is that I could have picked nearly any field other than education and it would sound equally silly. In every industry outside of education, specialization is the key to success. In education, we are so fixated on being the same that specialization is reviled at every turn.

Freedom and specialization go hand in hand. There is no ethical way to compel someone to attend a specialized school, so the only way to have specialization is to put parents in control of where their children attend school. (There is another piece, which is limited regulation, but that is a topic for another day.)

That is what they have in Arizona, which is why their teachers and administrators do not have to chase after parents to try to convince them to be involved. By selecting a school, those parents have committed to a particular educational philosophy, set of instructional practices, school-related protocols, etc. That is why charter schools routinely have more parental involvement. It is also why many schools can score well on state tests without being consumed by them.

We can have the same thing here in Virginia if we are willing to change a few things. Virginia educators could be a bit more humble and trust parents to act responsibly with their own children. Virginia school boards could recognize that charters are assets, not threats. Parents could be more assertive. We could all think a little more independently when it comes to education. Let’s do our part and make these positive changes happen.

CLAY SCOTT is a former teacher from Southampton Academy and Franklin High School, and he was also an administrator at SA. He is the co-founder of Telios Academy and a doctoral candidate at George Washington University. He can be reached at