Editorial | Charter-school proposal short on details

Editorial | Charter-school proposal short on details

All questions need to be answered so Champaign district officials can make an informed decision.

Last week's public hearing on a proposed new charter school for low-income, low-performing K-5 students in Champaign was striking for one disappointing reason — everyone was irritated by what transpired.

Charter school proponents were angry at being asked questions they could not answer, perhaps considering the exchanges between themselves and school board members to be something of an ambush. Rumblings from the charter school supporters in the audience clearly reflected their resentment.

School board members were equally aggrieved because they didn't get the answers to the mostly reasonable questions they asked, only promises to "get back to you," followed by admonitions to support a hugely expensive school proposal for students not fully identified.

And let's not forget an additional incendiary factor — the racial tension that is an inevitable part of the plan pushed by leaders of the black community who contend white teachers are not serving black children's special needs.

That circumstances turned out this way can be no great surprise to those familiar with the dynamics of charter schools, special facilities that operate with tax dollars under their own rules.

Charter schools draw immediate opposition from teachers' unions, which, like all unions, look out for their members' job security and economic interests.

School board members and administrators are equally skeptical of charter school proposals.

For starters, it's their collective job to oversee the schools in their districts. Charter school proponents are asking board members to finance an idea that they and their administrators won't control.

Further, the reason they're being asked to support a charter school is another affront — charter school proponents say black students' educational shortcomings are "rooted in how we teach black children," that white teachers' methods "create significant cultural gaps of understanding."

Given that natural resistance, it was incumbent on proponents to do their homework, submit a credible plan that addressed all issues and then be prepared to answer questions, no matter whether friendly or hostile, in exhaustive detail.

That's quite a burden for proponents to bear. But it's a burden they volunteered to assume when they came forth with what amounts to a plan for a special group of educationally needy students.

The idea is definitely worth discussion. But who will attend? How will the estimated $1.4 million (accounting for 100 students) annual cost be covered? Finally, how will it be better than what is available now.

Charter school backers who were asked to provide answers to more than 100 questions face a Wednesday deadline to do so.

One of the big differences of opinion between charter school backers and administrators concerns what test scores do — or do not — show. There also are differences of opinion about how to interpret the results of different tests.

It was not all that long ago that Champaign schools wrapped up a lengthy, costly and contentious effort to reduce, under federal court oversight, educational performance disparities between white and black students. To be told now that effort fizzled is either maddening in the extreme or evidence that the root problem of educational performance disparities lies not in the schools but elsewhere, perhaps impoverished homes with fractured and dysfunctional families.

Charter school proponents are making a noble effort. But good intentions are insufficient to take on a complicated, difficult effort to eliminate performance disparities among different groups of school children.

Charter school proponents say they would like to see their plan become a reality by the start of the fall 2018 school year. The district expects to issue a decision by May 2.

Given the current circumstances, the fall goal of charter backers seems like a pipe dream. Whether it's destined to remain a pipe dream depends on whether charter school backers can put some flesh on the skeleton of their plan.

If they're going to sell a charter school to skeptical board members and administrators, they need to step it up.

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