These schools set their sails in much-chartered waters

It’s kind of enlightening when your friend Janet Rowland grabs you by the scruff of your neck and drags you into a “volunteer” position or two (or three or four!) at your kid’s charter school — in this case Caprock Academy. I have to admit, a good part of this is my fault. At one time I also expressed interest in sitting on the board for the school — a fact not lost on Janet and the board.

But I’m not complaining (it would do no good). To be frank, I’m impressed with what I’m seeing at the school in terms of parent involvement, school vision and charter schools in general.

Although both Colorado and National Charter School weeks are coming up on the calendar in late April and early May, this isn’t a column about Caprock specifically, but rather an involved parent’s impression of the charter school experience.

For the record, I grew up (stop, that’s a separate argument) in a home with parents who were both teachers, one of whom was even crazier and sat on the board of the local public school system. So school policy, budgets and teachers unions are part of my makeup, via both osmosis and discussions at the dinner table. Oh, and my folks sent us to a Lutheran school! How’s that for having a dead-on view of just how parents, politicians, education bureaucrats and teachers view education today?

It is my experience the problems with schools today are the same kind of problems teachers, parents and education experts had back when my folks were active in the field. Class sizes were too big, there wasn’t enough money, private schools get the goods kids, not enough parent involvement, teachers’ union demands, etc. etc. I don’t know about you, but to my understanding of history, it really wasn’t until the government increased its role in ensuring a quality education for every child that these things became greater problems.

This gets me back to one of my main tenets as it relates to living in the United States of America: Unless it involves national defense and security, put things in the hands of local authorities while giving the people the right to choose what’s best for themselves and their families. Since our government first realized the importance of a truly educated populace and that funding it was a priority, education has gone from a small setting helping kids grow to an overfunded, bureaucratic behemoth in the hands of our federal government.

Charter schools bring the decision making back to the hands of parents and local educators, allowing all of us the choice of how to best educate our children. Charter schools are tuition-free public schools, have the same state and federal requirements in regards to testing and serve the same broad range of students our traditional public schools serve. Charter schools simply try to be more innovative, flexible and accountable in their programs, curricula and planning to keep their clientele satisfied.

That’s the difference. Charter schools by their nature must work and perform to succeed in a marketplace. And succeed they do in many ways.

Recall all of the laments about parental involvement in their kid’s education you hear from public schools? Well, Caprock asks parents to volunteer at the school 40 hours a year. My experience sees numerous roles at Caprock being filled by parent volunteers. How about funding? The fact is that all charter schools do more with disproportionately less money than their public school counterparts. How about the quality of students that attend charter schools? Aside from the fact that at my Lutheran school there were lots of dubious characters — of which the Hall boys were proud members — charter schools cannot discriminate from among those wanting to attend. The fact is, a system of discipline and structure is what keeps students in line and studying, not the luck of the draw.

Is this to say there aren’t charter schools that will fail? Of course not. It’s a marketplace and there will be good charter schools and bad ones alike. But what will sort them out is performance, product demand and parental choice. When was the last time you saw a failing public school close instead of demanding more funding? As charter and private schools have shown all long, it’s not about the money. If I had my way, I’d mandate that all education money follow the student, regardless of the school being public, private or religious. That’s real freedom. Any school worth its salt would welcome that opportunity.

I recall a chat about this very topic I had with some friends over a few adult beverages as we had just enrolled our oldest at Caprock. I expressed my “money follows the kid” theory and they both talked over one another to say how terrible an idea it was. Their response was that someone had to be in charge of education and the money, and that someone had to be the government. I couldn’t disagree more.

We’ve chartered these waters before. Who do you trust: A captain with the knowledge and instincts for a successful voyage, or the one that continues to run the ship aground?