Andrea Billups: Entrenched education systems need innovation, not tired tropes

While many citizens and plenty of teacher union members were angry at the passage of a charter school law in West Virginia last June, there is enough achievement evidence to suggest that the state’s public education cadre could do much better by its students.

This is not teacher bashing. Visit a school and watch a good teacher. See what he or she encounters in a week. Ponder what teachers endure and how little they earn — even in a state where teaching amounts to a stable income, a good job. No doubt, teachers work hard for very little, given their commitment, which rarely ends when the school day is over. It’s no wonder that fewer people want a career as a teacher — and that, in some places, school districts struggle to attract and retain good ones.

All that said: Our state should improve. In its college readiness, in its science and technological education, in ensuring our kids can compete for the best jobs with their peers from around the nation — for jobs of the future, not in industries that are fading away.

That starts with innovation, from elementary school forward.

Typically, teacher unions foment fear that jobs and money will leave when charter schools arrive. They’ve made that same argument for two decades, starting when the charter movement was in its infancy.

Charter proponents argue that having choice allows parents to vote with their pocketbooks and support those schools that best educate their children. Typically, competition within other industries yields a better quality product overall.

Whether West Virginia schools are forced into higher standards by the threat of new charter school performance — or decide to set more rigorous learning standards in traditional public schools — remains to be seen. The earliest any new charter could open is 2020.

Under the state’s current law, only three charters can be approved each year. By that measure, a small set of new charters will hardly displace existing systems, but it is possible that they could stop some schools slated for consolidation from fading away.

The stalwart outrage displayed during the charter school debate seems to suggest a digging-in mentality over a serious reflection on just how Mountain State schools might do better.

Because we aren’t No. 1 — in any measure. We’re not even Top 10. Or even 20. West Virginia ranked No. 42 overall in U.S. News’ rankings of the best states for pre-K to 12 education. While the state’s high school graduation rate was 89.8 percent (above the national rate of 84.1 percent), the state fell below average in national testing scores, ranking 46th in NAEP math scores and 45th in NAEP reading.

On the ACT test (a benchmark for college acceptance, along with the SAT), the state averaged a score of 20.4 percent, below the national average. In a 2018 ranking of college readiness, just 19 percent of West Virginia high school graduates met all four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks for math, science, reading and English.

For those reasons, it seems hard to knock reform efforts for an educational system that can’t prepare even one-fourth of its graduates for college. This is an embarrassment — and a window into our state’s future, where education and, with it, entrepreneurship, will guide our success or entrench us to failure.

Inarguably, teachers today have tougher jobs. They are, across our nation, being asked to do more with less while taking on problems that are not for public schools to solve. Poor parenting, lack of family support, poverty, even the Appalachian region’s ongoing opioid drug problem — all have landed at the schoolhouse door, where kids need more than a kindly educator and good hot lunch to move beyond circumstances in their lives that have been largely created by the adults who are responsible for their care and progress.

To wit, it’s not the teachers’ fault or even the fault of schools — but of families who have failed to take responsibility for their children’s well-being and success. Ask any teacher and, quietly, he or she will admit this is truth.

For those families who care enough to want to do better, having a choice about where they send their children to school is a tremendous boost. Not everyone can afford private education.

But being allowed to make a choice within the confines of a public system gives some parents the option of the bad school in their bad neighborhood versus a new program that likely is offering something different. Giving them the option to make that decision offers them dignity over the label that they are doomed by geography to society’s scraps.

What we do know from research is that all children can learn. And to suggest that some cannot by virtue of culture marks, as a former president once noted, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

In the best of scenarios, the flexibility of a charter school to innovate and, in turn, cater to different student needs, would seem a good thing in a place badly in need of some educational gains. In areas where charters have thrived and been successful, their unique missions have allowed them to serve diverse populations with targeted programs that address specific problems — in both learning and also discipline.

There are now charter school laws in 45 states and the District of Columbia, with about 3.2 million students attending more than 7,000 charter schools nationwide. And it seems unlikely — no matter the angry mob at our Statehouse doors — that charter programs in the U.S. are going away. They are not.

The tired trope of “they take money away from public schools” is enough to inflame a union rally, to organize a walkout, to garner CNN headlines — but hardly enough for most legislatures to discount an option that is not only doable but brings a new approach to a system that has grown tired, or refused to effectively change.

Research has consistently shown that most of us believe our own local schools are good. Some truly are. But when asked what we think about public schools today — more broadly — people are likely to suggest that, as a nation, our educational system has fallen behind. And we have.

According to Pew Research, U.S. students ranked in the middle on measures of reading, math and science, when compared to their counterparts from around the world. Is middle of the pack good enough for a nation whose very foundation was shaped on freedom and individualism — and excellence? While some cultural critics will assuage what they view as the creep of nationalism in recent years, most certainly we did not become a beacon of opportunity, drawing immigrants from all corners of our planet, with a collective motto of “average is OK.”

The West Virginia charter school law is flawed, much like the one passed next door in Kentucky two years ago. No charters have yet opened in the Bluegrass State. Like some similarly weak laws passed by other states, the West Virginia measure has only one pathway for a charter application to be approved — through a local school board. This gives great power to a board that includes the possibility of community malfeasance.

By that, it’s possible that a chartering body, called an authorizer, could offer perks or paybacks to school board members who vote yes to letting a charter school applicant start up a new school. By allowing more pathways to charter approval, say through a state board or even a state university, West Virginia’s charter school law could be improved and given a chance to thrive.

The golden trade-off on charters is simply this: If they don’t do what they propose to do, the state or approving body can close them. And many have been closed across the states. We can’t say that about traditional public schools where the worst of the worst continue, for decades, to accept the status quo while grown-ups argue and defend mediocrity, and perhaps saddest of all, generations continue to fall behind.

We should take the opportunity to see if charters, alongside their successful traditional public school counterparts, can work, at least for some students. Our current system clearly is not.

Andrea Billups is professional in residence at the School of Media/Journalism at Western Kentucky University, in Bowling Green, where she teaches writing and reporting. She is a native of Hurricane and graduate of Marshall University.

Funerals for Thursday, January 23, 2020

Ball, Mamie - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville. 
Browning, Molly - 1 p.m., Evans Funeral Home & Cremation Services, Chapmanville.

Coleman, Jason - 1 p.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Eskew, George - 1 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

Friend, Raymond - 1 p.m., Foglesong-Casto Funeral Home, Mason.

Fuller, Ellen - 11 a.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Hood, Melissa - 2 p.m., Gatens - Harding Funeral Home Chapel, Poca.

King, Mildred - 1 p.m., Sharon Church of God, Dry Branch.

Miller, LouEllen - Noon, Koontz Funeral Home, Hamlin.

Sovine, George - Noon, Culloden Community Cemetery.

Ward, Debra - 1 p.m., Graceland Cemetery, Alum Creek.