For 25 years, charter schools have been at the center of what we call school choice. But before we consider the one charter school here on the North Fork, let’s take a broader look across America at how this quiet revolution of charter schools produces real options for our children’s schooling.
It was Minnesota’s experiment to start charter schools back in 1990. They launched it with the creation of eight “outcomes schools.” These would be secular, public schools, with few regulations compared to the standard school district system. Licensed teachers would run them rather than elected school boards. This started a trend in other states where non-profit schools became a choice for parents. Entrenched resistance gave way to a new type of education more closely connected to communities.
Now, more than 3 million students attend 7,000 charter schools in 43 states. Almost all public school kids in New Orleans attend charters, and half in Detroit and Washington, D.C. Many cities and suburbs across the U.S. boast a third or more of all their school-aged kids in one or another charter school. And according to David Osborne’s and Ted Gaebler’s recent book, “Reinventing Government,” charter schools will soon become the primary means of K-12 education in urban America.
To list all the causes for this barely perceptible revolution in our kids’ education is impossible here, but according to Osborne and Gaebler, it has all to do with giving government a different role, where they “steer rather than row.” So in addition to the standard school district systems, government now enters into contracts with non-profit groups to start and run charter schools. Nationwide, with a generally good performance (and some exceptions, of course.) it’s an increasingly popular K-12 option, and most have waiting lists of applications for admission.
Most importantly, charters have opened the way for wider acceptance of school choice. In the book, “Charter Schools at the Crossroads,” by Chester Finn, et al., charters have become “no excuse” college prep schools for low-income kids. They have their enemies, such as the mayor of New York (who works to shut down all the charter schools in NYC) and the NAACP. Oddly, both profess to be committed to the cause of the poor and disenfranchised, who have most benefitted from a charter school education. Charter schools have made the political and educational establishments cranky, but less so with time.
And this brings us to the Riverhead Charter School, offering for our region a different, unique and largely successful (and tuition-free) K-8 program with a longer school day, more disciplined classes and plenty of homework. To gain admission to its current student body of 411, one must be selected through a lottery drawn from a perennial waiting list of applicants. It’s a school that is diverse and goal-driven, with school uniforms and smaller class sizes. It’s the only charter school in all of Suffolk County.
Some controversy has arisen at Riverhead Charter School, with several teachers seeking without success to unionize, and a pending, slow-moving lawsuit by former faculty against the school principal. But the school’s bumpy start seems to have had no long-term effect. There is overall satisfaction of parents in surveys carefully conducted by the school that is also extensive both online and from anecdotal evidence. Most notable is the high regard for the teachers at Riverhead Charter School, as well as the programs and the learning atmosphere of the classrooms. And unlike the top-heavy administrations that plague some regular public schools, Riverhead Charter School has a lean management that is well-engaged with its community of both parents and teachers.
The Riverhead Charter School parents also cherish the participatory role they have in the school system. This contrasts sharply with the Riverhead School District, where parent interest in their children’s public education seems to diminish. The only real connection between the Riverhead community is with the school board, which suffers from a self-imposed gag rule. The Riverhead Board of Education adheres to a hush rule which they incorrectly believe is state law, that board members must not speak to the press, or give public statements. This results in further parental disengagement and stifles the school board’s members from being leaders. In this and other respects, Riverhead school district could learn from the example of the Riverhead Charter School.
The education establishment in Riverhead opposed Riverhead Charter School from its start. Some could now argue, however, that in its 15 years of operation, Riverhead Charter School has offered a kind of competition that could motivate the Riverhead School District to team up actively with parents to work for self-improvement. Competition serves to enhance the product of education as it enhances so much else. In the meantime, the Riverhead Charter School plans to admit its first high school class in the fall of 2018, and likely there will be waiting lists of applicants for that class as well.
Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.
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