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Charter school melee.

Ted Sizer and Michael Petrilli illustrate what makes education policy such an interesting field ("Identity Crisis," Forum, Summer 2005). The fellow writing for the "right" (Petrilli) argues for state involvement, while the fellow representing the "left" (Sizer) objects to a strong exercise of federal power.

It's a compelling discussion that avoids two of the more frustrating positions in debates about these issues: testing is all that matters or there are not actually serious problems in American education.

But even this debate seems to obscure the potential for reasonable compromise. Sizer is right about the possible excesses of No Child Left Behind--style accountability, though it's worth noting that these issues predate the law. However, is Petrilli's plea for basic literacy and numeracy standards too much to ask? And, even in practice, is it really at odds with the rich notion of education that Sizer has long championed and in fact not something of a predicate for it?

The problem with the direction Sizer wants is that, for a variety of reasons, good intentions and localized accountability have proved an insufficient guarantee of equity for underserved students. In many walks of life, people are held accountable to external standards. Is education really so exceptional among American endeavors that it needs no such outside accountability?

Within both the traditional public and charter sectors there are schools that serve niche populations and do not lend themselves to the mainstream accountability system. However, these schools are a minority. Instead of arguing whether charter schools should be included in No Child Left Behind, a more fruitful question is how to ensure that state accountability schemes allow enough flexibility for boutique programs within the public system while not opening up loopholes that low-quality schools can slip through. That's a key issue for Congress to consider during the next reauthorization of No Child.

Apart from giving new start-ups an initial period of time to establish themselves, it is appropriate to hold the average charter school, serving similar students, to the same standards as other public schools in that community. If those standards are overly prescriptive or otherwise unreasonable, that's an issue for all schools, not a reason to carve out exceptions for charters. Rhetorically, charter foes consistently fail to note that charters are public schools; charter proponents should not substantively make the same omission.


Director of Education Policy and Senior Fellow

Progressive Policy Institute
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Author:Rotherham, Andrew J.
Publication:Education Next
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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