Editorial | Let's hear more on charter plan

Editorial | Let's hear more on charter plan

The proposed charter school in Champaign is an intriguing idea — but so far, it's only an idea.

Proponents of a new charter school in Champaign for low-income K-5 students have put together a plan that offers promise while inviting skepticism.

In theory, it sounds good. After all, special charter schools in other communities have offered a credible alternative for students whose parents were dissatisfied with the education their children received in traditional public schools.

At the same time, sounding good in theory won't get the job done. It's impossible to make a judgment on the proposal made by members of the North Champaign Academy group without serious scrutiny of the details on which this proposed school will operate.

Proponents, led by former school board member Nathaniel Banks, put their plan before Champaign school board members Feb. 26, giving board members 40 days to respond.

Frankly, it's hard to imagine they're pleased to have this political hot potato dumped in their laps.

After all, the teachers union almost instantly expressed opposition to the plan for the same reason teachers unions everywhere oppose charter schools — they divert resources from an entity in which union members are heavily involved to one in which they are not.

The local NAACP is also opposing the plan "at this time," according to their local spokeswoman.

In that context, how is the board supposed to respond to an idea that can be politically toxic?

Well, they might focus on the plan's merits and conduct a fact-based determination on whether charter-school proponents can deliver what they promise.

Three keys issues immediately come to mind:

— Student performance.

— Teaching effectiveness.

— Cost.

Charter-school backers say test scores indicate that black elementary school students have unacceptably low reading scores compared with their peers.

Is that what the numbers really show? Or have they been cherry-picked to enhance the argument for a charter school? A deep dive into the test scores should reveal the answer.

The performance gap is a nationwide problem, not one peculiar to Champaign or the state of Illinois. Indeed, since 2000, the Champaign school district has spent many millions of dollars reshaping K-12 education, a consequence of the federal consent decree whose goal was to eliminate "unwarranted disparities" in performance among different groups of students.

Charter-school backers say the performance shortcomings of black students is "rooted in how we teach black children," contending that too many white teachers in the Champaign schools "create significant cultural gaps of understanding."

Proponents must explain — in specifics — just what changes they plan that would eliminate the cultural gap perpetuated by white teachers that has such a pernicious impact on black children.

If they say they can do it better, they should be required to explain how they intend to do it better. Maybe they can offer solutions that go far beyond the Champaign schools.

Finally, there is the cost. Backers of a charter school say their plan will cost roughly $1.4 million.

Given the profligate nature of the district's spending, that may not seem like a staggering sum at first blush. But that $1.4 million would have to come from somewhere in the school budget, a reality certain to draw criticism from those who would be adversely affected.

The bottom line is that the school board must support whatever works best and is affordable if the district is to provide low-performing students a better chance at success.

But one would have to be awfully naive to think the entire solution lies within the schools. Children need to come to school prepared to learn, and for a variety of reasons mostly related to family and poverty issues, too many do not.

That unfortunate reality puts the onus on the schools to do the best they can to make up for those shortcomings.

But how? That's why charter-school proponents bear the burden of proof in demonstrating they really do have a better idea.

At the same time, school board members must ignore the inevitable political noise and keep an open mind until all the facts are in.

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