As even a casual observer could tell you, contemporary education reform debates rarely feature admissions of fault or guilt. That is why I was pleasantly surprised to read about the lauded–and self-critical–campaign of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). Dubbed “One Million Lives,” the effort seeks to “ engage charter school authorizers, along with a broad coalition of school operators, lawmakers, funders and others, to lead the way in closing failing charter schools and opening many more excellent ones.” In other words, NACSA is acknowledging a fact that we already know: there are many charter schools across the country that are not adequately serving kids. By actively working to shut down failing schools, NACSA is sending a powerful message that school effectiveness is more important than maintaining illusions of organizational perfection. School districts around the country would be well-served to follow suit by committing to closing or turning around unsuccessful schools.
As I’ve previously written, I think it is misguided–and unfortunately common–to view charter schools and traditional public schools as fundamentally different entities that are competing against one another. As I see it, a school is a school; what matters is whether it is serving kids. But the increasingly heated public battle between charters and traditional public schools has spawned a situation where both sides are trying to prove that they have the “right” model for school management–an argument that is obviously about adults, not kids. “One Million Lives” sacrifices the public image of charters for the sake of students that are attending bad schools, a demonstration of self-assessment and reflection that is all too rare in education reform. Why are school districts not making the same types of statements? There are at least “a million lives” attending failing traditional public schools as well. If districts were willing to set aside concerns about their public perception and recognize the urgency of closing or turning around failing schools, kids would be much better off. It’s time for us stop concerning ourselves with labels and start prioritizing what really matters.