Common Core vs. Charter School Independence

By Jonathan Butcher

When Lee Rudolph sent her children, Austin and Jennie, to Carpe Diem Charter School in Yuma, Ariz., she hoped they would learn more than just reading and math. "Carpe Diem bases the teaching on the pillars for life of character and responsibility and giving them the tools that they need as citizens," Lee explains. "They are a school that treats each student as a family member."

Obviously, academic lessons are also important, and Lee uses online tools that Carpe Diem gives parents in order to see how her children are performing. "I know exactly the grades that Austin and Jennie getting and why. It is very handy," Lee says. This year, Austin, age 16, will graduate at the top of his class.

Nearly 6,000 charter schools operate around the U.S. and enroll some 2 million children. Public charter schools are designed as alternatives to traditional public schools, and in many cases they operate independently from local school districts. Charter schools sign contracts that allow them to choose their own curriculum and teaching styles to meet the individual needs of their students. The contracts exempt charter schools from state regulations, but state agencies can close a charter school if students don't succeed.

Unfortunately, the spirit of charter schools -- their independence and ability to serve each child's unique needs -- has been paid little attention in the debate over the Common Core State Standards. Depending on whom you ask, these standards are either more rigorous national benchmarks for states or an unhealthy mix of new rules and curriculum requirements.

Parents choose a charter school because they want an experience for their children that's different from what their assigned public school offered. National standards or not, lawmakers should continue to allow charter schools to operate separately from the regulations applied to traditional schools.

Currently, parents and schools are getting mixed messages about what will change with the standards. For example, Common Core's math standards say that they "do not dictate curriculum or teaching methods." Yet Mike Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a proponent of Common Core, wrote last week that changing academic standards may affect "curricular decisions." He summarized the process of implementing "standards-based reform" thus: "Set clear standards, align assessments to those standards, hold educators accountable, and help them find solid curricular materials that sync with the standards."

So will the standards require classrooms to use different textbooks and cover different material, or not? For charter schools and their families, the answer matters. Charter schools' defining feature is the freedom to choose what and how students learn, as long as students demonstrate results.

Charter-school leaders may find themselves in the same position as Sharon Malone, principal of Adams Traditional Academy, a charter school in Phoenix, who says, "We can't follow our math curriculum truly and follow the Common Core. We have diluted the areas where we are ahead in order to include areas that are not essential in order to comply with the standards."

Lawmakers should recognize this and give charter schools more flexibility. Likewise, charter schools must hold up their end of the bargain. If charter schools are exempted from the standards, their student results, as measured on standardized tests and through graduation rates, should still be compared to those of traditional schools. Lawmakers should close low-performing charter schools, just as they did before Common Core.

Charter-school laws have spurred the creation of schools with innovative teaching methods to open around the country. Carpe Diem (which has no stated position on Common Core) blends online instruction and classroom work, East Point Academy in South Carolina teaches material in English and Chinese, and the Denver School of Science and Technology in Colorado focuses on math and science instruction.

Some 2 million families have decided that charter schools are the best place for their children. But under Common Core, these schools' options for differentiating themselves could be limited.

Jonathan Butcher is education director for the Goldwater Institute.

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