Creating a Level Playing Field in Education

Creating a Level Playing Field in Education
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RCEd Commentary

Are charter schools a thinly disguised attempt to privatize our public education system? Is the main function of teacher unions to protect “bad teachers?” Such are the Molotov cocktails often hurled at each other by charters and unions. But what if we had a mind shift and could see important areas where our hopes and ideas could converge? A group of charter and union leaders did shift, doing what has long been accepted as impossible by starting a real conversation through recent seminars run by the Pahara Institute in collaboration with the Aspen Institute.

Mutual understanding replaced acrimonious insult, as we engaged in respectful discussion based on evidence rather than on myths in order to alleviate the regrettable accusations in a regrettable fight. The 50 million public school students and their families are the losers when we battle, when all educators should be collectively working on behalf of all children.

All of us who work as teachers, union or not, entered the profession with hearts and minds fully committed to teaching children. We all seek to ensure that the next generation of citizens is ready to take on life’s challenges. While there are disagreements about the role of testing, standardized curricula, and teacher evaluations, the discussion should begin by recognizing our shared commitment to educate all of our nation’s children.

The reality is that every child in every public school is everyone’s responsibility. A child attending a public charter school or district public school is still a child of our nation’s public school system. We need schools of all kinds to educate our future public. When we acknowledge that we’re in this together, we’ll be able to hold all public schools accountable for results and support each other better along the way.

Realizing the ugly myths we have perpetuated, we identified shared goals such as supporting teachers, getting students to college, and ending the achievement gap. We also saw how some legislation widens the distance between our groups, such as providing inequitable funding for charter and traditional public schools. Policies should not allow for double standards, and should change in three ways to even the playing field and improve the opportunities for all public schools to serve every child well.

First, policies should support opportunities for teacher voice and leadership. Schools should treat teachers as professionals and trust them. Simple changes could mean including teachers when hiring administrators, conducting 360 surveys so that the teacher voice helps evaluate their administrators and administrators get feedback from their subordinates and colleagues, and providing career ladders so that teachers can move into new and varied roles. Unionized and non-unionized teachers in both charter schools and traditional public schools can agree that advancing the teaching profession, while meeting the needs of our students — particularly our highest-needs students — is essential.

Second, policies should ensure similar requirements on the core issues of teacher licensure, enrollment, and exit requirements so that all students have the same opportunities to be well-served by their schools. If policies must vary, they should favor disenfranchised families, but not disadvantage public charters or district schools in serving them. Similarly, students should not be exited arbitrarily from schools. Both district and charter schools need to place a stronger emphasis on subgroups such as special education to ensure that all students receive a meaningful educational experience.

Third, legislation should ensure equitable funding across all schools. Charter school advocates point to less per-pupil funding of charters while traditional public school proponents cite inequitably high philanthropic support of charters. A full and transparent accounting of public and private funds allocated to both charter and district school budgets would help the public have a more evidence-based understanding of what money is available, and how it is being used.

Our nation’s elected officials need to craft legislation to create a level playing field for all schools. Teachers — all of us — regardless of what type of public school they teach at or whether they belong to a union — entered the profession with hearts and minds fully committed to teaching children. We can realize our goals by shifting our attention from the hateful speech to collective, hopeful actions.

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