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Charter Schools: The Marine Corps of Public Education

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

The Marine Corps’ mystique entices motivated recruits. Its battlefield ferocity strikes fear in the hearts of its enemies. The Corps is something nearly everyone admires, but only a few have what takes to make the commitment.

Marines do not make excuses; they find ways to accomplish their mission – often without assets others require. Marines pride themselves on their ability to “accomplish more with less.”

Charter schools have benefited from a similar philosophy. They, too, “accomplish more with less.” They entice committed families and teachers searching for something better in public education. They also strike fear in the hearts of teacher unions and slippery politicians.

Overall, charter schools have produced at least as good -- but typically better results than traditional public schools. They have done so without assets their competition demands. Charters have succeeded despite receiving less taxpayer funding. They are completely on their own to pay for classroom facilities. Whether they build, lease, or restore property, charters own the problem.

Charters also highlight the garbage surrounding “teacher certification.” Depending on the state, charters have flexibility in their hiring practices. Proportionally, they use fewer “certified teachers,” yet charters match or surpass their competition’s results.

They endure politically correct “deficiencies,” as well, like insufficient racial diversity. Many charters specifically target at-risk populations -- which are often minorities. Incredibly, their opponents assert charters support segregation.

By design, charters operate with greater autonomy and fewer regulations than district schools. In return, charters promise better accountability for academic results and fiscal bookkeeping. But teacher unions exert tremendous energy to cripple charters with the same regulations and central control that make public schools the disasters they are.

Granted, some charters emphasize the same politically correct fads district schools do -- self-esteem, diversity, or outcome-based instruction (i.e. low standards). Some have experienced accounting scandals that occasionally embarrass traditional schools. Such charters are like Marines who humiliate the Corps by failing to live up to its high standards (e.g. Congressman Frank Murtha).

Nevertheless, charters give parents an option that teacher unions frantically oppose. Choice equals competition, and customers generally choose the product that works best. Public schools haven’t worked for a long time because monopolies breed complacency. Charter schools open the door to competition. But teacher unions employ lawyers and politicians to slam that door shut. By imposing increased regulations and as much central control on charters as possible, unions undermine the competitive edge charter schools have – decentralized control.

The Corps faces similar problems. The smallest branch of the military, the Corps has battled being absorbed into another service. Its success and mystique are often envied and occasionally despised (as are charter results). For example, during the 1983 assault on Grenada, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John W. Vessey Jr., declared, “We have two companies of Marines running rampant all over the northern half of this island, and three Army regiments pinned down in the southwestern corner, doing nothing. What the hell is going on?” We should ask the same question concerning public education.

Marines advocate decentralized command more than any other service. Its philosophy pushes important-decision making down the chain to the lowest-ranking Marines in the trenches. Such responsibility forces Marines to be incredibly knowledgeable and competent. Marines stress accountability not only for personal actions and decisions, but also for subordinates’.

Charters operate similarly, as they function independently from district schools. Charters simply have a more efficient approach. They streamline administration and eliminate bureaucratic red tape. They place greater responsibility directly on teachers. In fact, if charter-school teachers are ineffective, they cannot hide behind tenure, which protects district teachers. Charter teachers have one-year contracts. Staying employed motivates them to teach and produce results. Conversely, once tenured, district teachers have little internal pressure to perform -- as teacher-union jihad ensues if principals dare attempt firing incompetent teachers.

Furthermore, teacher unions insist  “certified teachers” are essential to learning. But charter school results prove differently, as does pragmatic research. For example, three professors -- representing Harvard, Columbia, and Dartmouth -- expose the insignificance of teacher certification in “Photo Finish.”  Unfortunately, most competent teachers who want to teach in public schools cannot escape the politically correct indoctrination and state-supported extortion of credentialing programs. Then again, charter schools can save some from the legalized shakedowns that teacher-certification programs are.

Opponents also accuse charters of draining funds from district schools. This is simply untrue. District schools receive money only for enrolled students. In other words, when families opt for charter schools, they actually give traditional schools what teacher unions demand: smaller classes and reduced teacher workload.

Finally, regarding racial diversity, no practical evidence exists that racial diversity improves learning. In fact, research by Harvard’s Ronald G. Fryer suggests the opposite. In “Acting White,” Fryer reveals that black students who do well academically in racially integrated schools face banishment and even violence from other blacks. He writes, “It’s less of a problem in the private sector and in predominantly black public schools.” He also states, “[his] findings with respect to Hispanics are even more discouraging.” Furthermore, most minority parents want the right to choose their children’s schools. But politicians who boast about looking out for minorities are the same representatives denying minorities that right.

While no one will ever mistake charter schools for the Marine Corps, charters’ ability to “accomplish more with less” deserves greater recognition. Traditional schools should try replicating the philosophy instead of plaguing charters with failed practices. The Marine Corps made the ability to improvise, to adapt, and to overcome famous. If teachers will strive for that ability, their students stand to profit.

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