Abraham Lincoln is said to have told this story: If you call a horse’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have? Four. Calling a horse’s tail a leg won’t make it one.
That’s what I thought of when I read a report by Paul Soutar, my colleague at the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy. Soutar, an investigative reporter, looked at the Maurice R. Holman Academy of Excellence charter school, in Kansas City, Kansas.
In case you’re not familiar with charter schools, they are public schools that, like traditional public schools, receive taxpayer money and admit all students.
But they are different from traditional schools in a few key ways. They sign a promise, or contract, with a school district, university, or state board of education (the specific organization, called a sponsor, depends on the laws of each state) that they will abide by certain financial rules and achieve specific academic goals. In exchange, they are freed from some laws and regulations. The sponsor shuts down a school if it doesn’t live up to the contract, which is also known as a charter.
This performance-based contract is one key factor that distinguishes charter public schools from other public schools. Another is that the important decisions about running the school are made in the school itself, not in a district office somewhere down the street or across town.
So how is the idea of charter schools working out in Kansas City? According to Soutar, officials with USD 500 Kansas City have not allowed the school to implement the curriculum the Holman Academy proposed in its charter. Further, the district has decided how many students and teachers the school will have, who will be its principal, and even who attends the school. The most relevant autonomy that the Holman Academy has is to find $200,000 worth of donations.
It sounds to me like USD 500 isn’t letting Holman Academy be a true charter school. When the staff of a district assign students and teachers to specific schools and determine the curriculum, they do what we’ve come to expect from a district. But when it comes to Holman, USD 500 is trying to convince us that a horse with a tail is really a five-legged horse. Behold, the charter school that isn’t.
From what I recall, USD 500 wasn’t a fan of the Holman Academy from the start. Saddled with the responsibility of overseeing a school it doesn’t want, the district has constrained Holman so much that it can’t succeed or fail on its own.
There’s a way to avoid such awkward situations in the future: Change the law. The states that make the best use of charter schools, such as Arizona and Minnesota, let school districts sponsor charter schools if they wish. But they also let universities, independent state agencies and other organizations take on that responsibility.
Some Kansas school districts have shown that they want to and can innovate. USD 497 Lawrence and USD 458 Basehor-Linwood, for example, are leaders in offering online education.
But right now, only school districts can sponsor charter schools, and even then, only schools physically located within their boundaries. Some may be willing to give the schools the autonomy they need to be charter schools. Others, though, aren’t.
So let’s give KU, K-State, education service centers, and other organizations the right to sponsor charter schools. That way, charter schools, which nationally are the face of school reform, can flourish in Kansas.