Chartering a Path to Educational Success in Wisconsin

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    Harry C AlfordAcross the nation our public schools are not performing as they should or as they used to.  There is so much attention given to improving our public schools but the successes are far and too few.  According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, American literacy rates have not changed in more than 10 years.  With all the attention we are giving to public education, there is just no improvement by using the traditional methods.

    Just reading alone is a factor in national security, economic attainment, access to health care and the chance of full participation as a first-class citizen.  According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.”  Yes, 85 percent of all juveniles in our juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.  More than 70 percent of inmates in our prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level.

    As the great Booker T. Washington stated, “We cannot be truly free without an education.”  We as a nation must come up with new direction as the same old methods are failing us while education levels and literacy in many rival nations are improving and pulling away from the achievement of U.S. schools.  Alas, the state of Wisconsin has stepped up and created an alternative.  The state legislature of this progressive state has authorized a comprehensive charter school program.  The state has three types of charter schools.

    The first is a basic charter school, defined as “nonsectarian schools created through a businesslike contract or ‘charter’ between the charter governance board and the sponsoring school board or other chartering authority.  The Wisconsin charter school law gives charter schools freedom from most state rules and regulations in exchange for greater accountability for results.  The charter defines the missions and methods of the charter school.  The chartering authority holds the school accountable to its charter.  The charter school motto is Autonomy for Accountability.”

    The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction justifies the above via this explanation:  “Wisconsin established charter schools to foster an environment for innovation and parental choice.  They can exist as living laboratories that influence the larger public school system and introduce an element of competition within that system.  Charter schools are created with the best elements of regular public schools in mind.  Their leaders may experiment with different instructional theories, site-based management techniques, and other innovations.  They learn, sometimes by trial and error, what works best for their student population.  Regular schools can observe and learn from what happens in the charter school and make similar improvements.  Through this process, the entire public school system is continually challenged to improve itself.”

    They also demand parental involvement.  Parents can participate in choosing upcoming curriculum changes, technology methods and encouraging the entire community to stay involved with all school programs and give input for new direction.  It must be working. The greater Milwaukee area has 37 charter schools running with many more on the books”.  As typical public schools are closing and/or consolidating, charter school expansion is there to fill the void.

    Now the state has come up with another version of a charter school.  That is a 2R Charter School.  They are identical to a regular charter school except their authorizers can be the city of Milwaukee, University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, University of Wisconsin – Parkside or the Milwaukee area technical college district board.

    Wait, they also have one more version of a charter school, defined as “publicly funded, nonsectarian schools that are exempt from many regulations that apply to traditional public schools and that offer some of their classes online.  They began operating in Wisconsin during the 2002-3 school year.  Pupils typically attend from their homes and communicate with teachers using e-mail, by telephone, or in online discussions.  During the 2010-11 school year, 17 virtual charter schools enrolled 4,110 pupils.  Most were high schools.  Currently there are 25 virtual charter schools.”

    It is apparent that the state of Wisconsin has developed a model program for many other states that have urban centers that could use improvement and innovation towards the better product it is putting out through their school system.  One thing is clear – there is no room for street gangs, drugs and general violence in a charter school system.  It makes a school a place for learning and achievement plus preparation for the future.  Oh, if Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and many other cities with challenging school systems would try to emulate this successful program.  It could make a wonderful change.  What are we waiting for?  We are talking about our children’s future.

    Harry C. Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce®.  Website: www.nationalbcc.org.  Email: halford@nationalbcc.org

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