Charter Schools: Educational Incubators

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IDEA Public School students participate in a small group instruction, a fundamental of IDEA's elementary academic model. Photo courtesy of IDEA.

Courtesy Photo

Students at IDEA Public School, a charter school, participate in small-group instruction.

During the last couple of years, a number of charter schools have opened in San Antonio and other areas of Texas.  This movement has triggered a series of articles and debates comparing and defending one system over the other. In all these articles and debates, authors have taken a narrow set of data to defend their positions about the system without looking at the complete educational ecosystem in our city, state and country. The elephant in the room is that U.S. students are not doing well academically when compared to other developed/developing nations.

High school dropout rates are declining but are still too high, costing states billions of dollars because many of our graduates are not ready for college or to join the workforce. This is affecting our nation’s short and long-term global competitiveness – our innovative ability is compromised. The talent equilibrium is shifting away from us as production and high tech jobs have already left the shores.

Both systems, public and charter, have their pros and cons. Our public school system is a staggering $600 billion machine that does many good things for 55 million students in the country who attend.

Maritza Alvarez and Nancy Vargas are college bound and loving it at Travis Early College High School. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Maritza Alvarez and Nancy Vargas are college bound and loving it at Travis Early College High School. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

By using economies of scale, school districts are often able to offer facilities to students that include modern, climate controlled buildings, gymnasiums and sports facilities, access to latest technology (iPads, laptops, Smart Boards), fully stocked libraries, certified school buses, lunch programs for the needy, programs for special education students, and many more perks. But at the same time, study after study shows that our children fall behind – in math and science especially, are unable to compete globally and are not ready to fuel the next big thing.

The machine has become top-heavy with bureaucracy, loaded with competing mandates (like our tax code), and difficult to maneuver and innovate. It is not able to meet the needs of every student in the country.

“Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Charter schools (or other incarnations) attempt to address the lack of agility within our public school system. These schools are small, nimble systems that are created from the ground up. They are singly-focused and not burdened with reams of competing mandates. They can be considered as “incubators” with super specialized focuses.

The best analogy to explain this is the technology industry.  Innovation and disruption happens at smaller companies that are later acquired by Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and others to get the scale. Over a period of time, it becomes difficult for a larger system to self-correct or reinvent itself, and that is what is happening with our public school system.  They have economies of scale but they have too many mandates.  They have become “too big to innovate.”

San Antonio’s Pre-K 4 SA program is a good example of an attempt to bring innovation to the marketplace.

A sunny day at the Pre-K 4 SA South Campus. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

A sunny day at the Pre-K 4 SA South Campus. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

It shares similar characteristics as that of a charter school system. From an economy of scale point of view, it would have been more efficient to have one pre-k class in each elementary school eliminating the need for upfront capital infrastructure investment.

Mayor Castro and his team instead decided to roll the program out as a new, independent program. Local school districts supported this decision, regardless of the fact that each district has its own pre-k program. The school districts themselves have magnet schools that follow the above model – specialized schools with a special focus. Both programs have been well-received by many parents.

A strong and successful public school system is critical for our nation. I commend the district superintendents for collaborating with each other to project the image of our public schools through the “Go Public” campaign. I challenge them now to take this one step further – form positive alliances (like the one with Pre-K 4 SA) with the other incubators to explore how their successes can be rolled back into the public school machinery. I strongly feel that both systems can leverage each other’s strengths to deliver the best tools to our children. Together, they can.

*Featured/top image courtesy of IDEA Public Schools.

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