Twenty years ago, public opinion in my community was split over the issue of establishing a K-5 charter school in Sauk Prairie. Our superintendent supported it, WEAC didn’t. Pleasant River School, founded by parents, had a previous 10+ yr record of success as a private school.
Here are three of a number of letters to the editor I wrote at the time in regards to this ultimately unsuccessful attempt to establish the first charter school in the Sauk Prairie school district. These letters still accurately reflect my views regarding school choice in general, whether it be charters or vouchers.
“Charter School offers chance to reach all students”
Sauk Prairie Star 4/1/99
A letter in last week’s Wall Street Journal (3/25) made me think again about the charter school debate within the Sauk Prairie School District. The mother wrote in response to a WSJ article concerning a lawsuit against Phillips Academy over equal access to a disabled student. To quote her:
“I have two sons with equal intellectual abilities by far different academic needs. MY older son recently graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover and simply loved being there. While most parents and students will tell you Phillips is a wonderful academic institution, it is also very large and is a scholastic pressure cooker with sometimes unbelievably heavy workloads: and it provides little in terms of safety nets.”
“Like the student in the article, my younger son also had ADHD, he attends Brooks School, also in the Boston area. While recognized as an academic peer to Philllips Academy, Brooks is much smaller and enjoys a reputation of good safety nets and a supportive environment. My younger son has flourished there.”
“The college admissions statistics that I have seen show that the best prep schools provide an outstanding yet almost equivalent learning platform for entering the top colleges. However, they vary greatly in their approach to teaching and in their overall living environments.”
“I believe the real problem lies not with Phillips Academy, but with parents who fail to help their son select a school that best fits his academic and non-academic needs.” (end of quote)
In reading this letter, opponents of the charter school concept would probably say that they agree with the approach that this mother took toward her sons’ education. My question is why these opponents are so antagonistic toward children who are not rich, but who could also flourish with such different options. Take the growing number of young people who find it impossible to fit in to the ever more restrictive atmosphere of our public schools: Do they really feel that the needs of such normal kids (normal despite the labels with which our current public schools have branded them) can really best be met through the use of more Ritalin, more standardized tests, more accountability to state and federal lawmakers (who are mostly people with no experience or knowledge of teaching at all) and increasingly rigid rules which violate almost every remaining shred of student privacy? Do they really think that taking away a student’s driver’s license or policing his after-school life, will result in a more positive attitude toward learning? Do they really see no alternative to all this other than sending increasing numbers of our children into the courts as well as training a SWAT team at the high school?
Proponents of a “one size fits all” theory of public education believe that most students are basically wards of the state, wards who should be forced to accept what the state wants them to become. If, on the road to absolute control, this involves destroying the life of a rebellious or troubled student, then so be it. This very troubling attitude is also found in those who, because they like what our current public system has given to their own children, then deny other children the right to experience anything else, although they may come from a very different background and be a very different person.
Proponents of a flexible approach to schooling, on the other hand, believe that parents are often the best judge of which school best suits their child, and that true education is the process of instilling a love of learning within each individual child. This then leads to the self-esteem which so many educators are now vainly trying to find in all but the right places. They also know, given the right environment, that the most troublesome students at a regular public school, with the right mentoring, can easily develop into outstanding leaders and creators who will end up giving huge benefits to our whole society. One of the most ironic things in this whole debate is that those who advocate spending more money in order for a bureaucracy to deal with troublesome students fail to recognize that simply creating a true alternative learning environment would solve most of these problems overnight.
A free country requires true educational options for people of all levels of income, and because all children are different and have different needs, it seems clear that such needs can be best met through a wide range of educational choices within every community. The more this happens, the more the issue of “accountability” becomes a non-issue. How many parents, after all, are going to actively seek out an alternative school which is inferior to what their child can currently receive within the traditional system? This is a question which I hope school board member Rose White or some WEAC spokesperson will eventually get around to answering. And another issue which has never been addressed in this controversy is how the threat of lawsuits in our district will probably plummet once parents feel they have more real choice in their children’s education.
The importance of providing the charter to Pleasant River School goes beyond providing an educational alternative to just 30 students. Such a charter could be the first step to alternatives for our children in the future. Parents, concerned citizens, members of our school board should keep that in mind, since this is currently an important issue for a powerful, well-organized and reactionary teacher’s union. I sincerely hope that the school board votes with the kids on this one, and I encourage supporters contact them now with their support for Pleasant River.
“Amos Roe responds to media coverage of charter school”
Sauk Prairie Eagle 12/16/1999
Two weeks ago, you printed 10 pros and 10 cons which you extrapolated from the arguments of who have have views on the proposed Pleasant River Charter School.
As a supporter of any public school which is truly allowed to take its own path in educating children, I want to respond to the first five cons (slightly paraphrased) in this letter.
Con #1: “Since Pleasant River has been a successful as a private alternative school, it should continue in this capacity.” Rebuttal: Why is it always only the rich who should have options like this school? How does this fit in with the supposed concern for quality education for all children?
Con #2: “There is no law that says Sauk Prairie has to grant a charter to Pleasant River School.” Rebuttal: Judge that argument for yourself.
Con #3: “While Sauk Prairie may need alternatives at the high school level, they don’t need them at the grade school setting.” Rebuttal: Good educators and parents know that this is complete nonsense. True alternatives at the lower level would avoid or strongly mitigate the majority of serious problems that kids have when they reach adolescence. Ever notice how so many children who are educated within a home environment, for example, don’t seem to have such problems? Alternatives at the lower grades would also sharply curtail the current mass drugging of young school children with Ritalin, certainly one of the most indefensible abuses of normal children being committed anywhere in this country (Not sure why the editor completely failed to mention this issue in his list, by the way.).
Con #4: “With a proposed ceiling of 30 students, very few will be able to attend this country club school.” Rebuttal: Ignoring the loaded and highly inaccurate term “country club school” (interesting how this “country club school” is located in an old building which the public schools would have torn down 25 years ago as hopelessly inadequate,) no one is suggesting that this should be the only charter school made available. If there is a demonstrated need beyond the available spots, then let’s get another one going. Or is that really what opponents fear might happen?
Con #5: “The DPI has mislead the school board and the superintendent is on the way out.” Rebuttal: I’m not sure what ‘misleading the school board” means, other than to imply some kind of dishonesty, which is totally inappropriate. I believe that the integrity of those involved with developing the charter school proposal is above reproach, something which is generally acknowledged by everyone.
As to the impending retirement of Dr. Magnuson, I see no reason why he shouldn’t be allowed to take credit for helping to enact a long-overdue reform before the agents of monolithic public education can try to use their political power in helping to select a superintendent whom they can better control.
Sauk Prairie should rethink charter school
Baraboo News Republic 6/8/2001
Thanks to Ben Bromley for his 5/21 article on charter schools in our area. It’s encouraging to learn that these schools are offering successful alternatives to children whose needs have not been met in the regular public school environment.
I also was interested in the side column in which it was stated that after extensive community debate the Sauk Prairie School Board voted down a proposed charter for Pleasant River School last year, due to concern that it would drain district funds and lacked teacher and citizen support. In terms of funding, there would have been a transfer of 85% of the current student expenditure to finance those who attended Pleasant River. Rather than drain district funds, such expenditures at Pleasant River would probably have had the long term effect of avoiding the huge future expense of building new structures by allowing placement of students in Pleasant River and other future charter schools at a cost far less than the cost of a new buildings. In addition, it would help reduce the ever-increasing expense of trying to fit all types of kids into our current public schools.
As to the alleged lack of teacher and citizen support, that is a debatable point. In my opinion it was the best informed citizens and certainly those who had the children’s best interests in mind, who strongly supported the charter.
Opponents, on the other hand, displayed fear and hatred of any kind of education which they could not personally control, despite the fact the strongest critics had no teaching experience whatsoever. And particularly memorable was the level of totally unwarranted and personal hostility which some of them engaged in, something which was very upsetting to some of the charter school organizers. This is a characteristic of all fanatics who cannot debate an issue on its merits.
I also think the issue of general support for a charter, whatever it really was, should have been secondary in the minds of the school board members. Isn’t the whole point of a charter school to offer an alternative to a minority, rather than the majority of children within the district? One of the problems of our public school system is that many local boards try too hard to mirror current public attitudes, except when it comes to new buildings. Since many people still seem to have little interest in seriously helping kids who cannot function within a restrictive educational environment, and since most public school systems have a large number of professionals who are most interested in protecting and furthering their own interests, trying to always appease these two admittedly important factions can be an exercise in futility. Who has ever claimed that serving on a school board is going to win any popularity contests? And in this case, it would hardly have been a difficult vote, since the general public really could have cared less on this issue. In fact, the denial of the charter came as a surprise to many involved.
Proponents also made a mistake in how much time and energy they spent in trying to bend over backwards in attempting to satisfy their most hostile critics. Such critics, including Rose White, a school board member who later ran for the Assembly with the support of WEAC, would never have supported a meaningful Pleasant River charter regardless of how many debilitating concessions this highly—regarded school ended up making. It was senseless to play this game at all, and it exhausted and demoralized proponents who worked overtime to try and meet all the ever evolving objections. Wasn’t it obvious that an absolute defeat of any viable charter school at Pleasant River was what the opponents were trying to achieve at the start? For how absurd and petty the demands became, consider how even the name “Pleasant River School” was required to change to “Children of Tomorrow of Sauk Prairie,’ one of the most ridiculous sounding names for a school that I’ve ever heard.
Charter and voucher programs are competitive responses to weaknesses of our current public school system, weakness which have become apparent to even some parents whose own kids function well within the regular school system. When these alternatives are open to kids of families who cannot afford a traditional private school, they are very much part of a public school community. Rather than destroy public education, they strengthen it through offering necessary and sometimes exciting alternatives to all children. I applaud the administrators and teachers who understand this, and hope that in the future, the Sauk Prairie School Board will have a chance to reverse last year’s unfortunate vote.
That said, I do think that a universal voucher program is inherently much superior
for improving student engagement and achievement over time. For the reasons why, click on the voucher tab.