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“Learning the Hard Way” (2/2) is an interesting and detailed piece about the troubles that charter schools experience. As a proponent of charter schools, I believe that Laura Lang just doesn’t get it—or did not make an effort to document the importance of charter schools. (Or maybe she is just a critical writer—see her Mayor Williams story, “The Big Choke,” 7/2/99).

The charter-school effort is about building a public school system for the future that is based on contractual accountability. Many of the troubles that charter schools are experiencing stem from (1) a law that is good but only half-cooked and (2) the novelty (or immaturity) of the effort.

The charter-school law has two important parts, one detailed and the other not. The detailed part involves the freedoms that charters will receive (legal, fiscal, personnel, etc.). The silent part pertains to the role of the authorizers and how they go about granting and monitoring these public schools. These groups are learning how to grant, to sponsor, and to monitor as they go. The ship is being built as they go, and that means that aspects of accountability and oversight have slipped through. Lang has done well to document these troubles.

Add overambitious educators to the green sponsors and the troubles compound. The novelty of the effort and the opportunity it presents have lured many people into the field who may not have been ready for such a large political and practical task. Starting and running a school is hard work, with many unexpected pitfalls. Their unforeseen errors were not filtered by sponsors, because the sponsors were just learning as well. These troubles, then, became the sponsors’ troubles—and the city’s troubles.

Despite the troubles and the opponents (including Amy Stewart Wells, whose shoddy hit-job report was mentioned—try to find anyone who will back that junk paper), charter schools are the right thing to do. Their legal framework is a move in the right direction: promoting parental choice, contractually accountable schools, and the opportunity to create a better neighborhood school if the present one is failing. The alternative is a regression and not worth considering. Getting it right in a system that has traditionally struggled will take time.

I hope Lang’s article was intended to promote a better charter-school system, but I am not convinced that was the case.

Tenleytown