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Willful ignorance on charter schools hinders state

By JIM WATERS The Bluegrass Institute


The Bluegrass Institute

There are two kinds of ignorance: One is genuine unawareness; the other is willful.

Rational Wiki defines "willful ignorance" as "the state and practice of ignoring any sensory input that appears to contradict one's inner model of reality."

Anti-choice politicians possess "inner models of reality" that offer little help in the way of viable choices for poor parents whose children are trapped in failing public schools. These policymakers may not know much about charter schools, but they aren't about to find out any more, either.

Such willful ignorance about charters dominates Frankfort, where the size and frequency of campaign contributions from teachers' unions are the Alpha and Omega of many politicians' "inner model of reality."

The best way to change this reality is by providing their sincerely unaware constituents with a serious, informed debate about charter schools. That's what the Bluegrass Institute, my organization, hopes to achieve with a completely written debate that will be published online in its entirety on July 28.

The debaters - current University of Kentucky education professor Wayne Lewis, Ph.D., and retired UK economics professor Martin Solomon, Ph.D. - have gone back and forth offline for several weeks now. The institute's role has been simply to provide the online venue and facilitate the debate with only minimal editing and a single opening question: "Are charter schools right for Kentucky?" Beyond that, the debaters determine the direction of the conversation.

The content is largely untouched as we are careful to achieve our goal of a true, uncontrolled and passionate back-and-forth that fully addresses issues that Kentuckians care about, including whether or not charter schools really are public schools.

"Although proponents like to call them public schools because they receive public funding by siphoning off money originally meant for public schools, charters really are private schools that are run by private individuals or private corporations," Solomon writes in his opening statement. "They are completely outside the public school system when it comes to policies regarding teacher qualifications, acceptance of handicapped kids or curriculum content."

Lewis addresses what he calls Solomon's "outlandish insistence that charter schools are not public schools" by noting that in the many states where charter schools operate, they receive public funds, are tuition free and open to the public.

"To suggest that charter schools are not public schools in the year 2014 is both ridiculous and an insult to the 42 states and the District of Columbia where they operate," Lewis writes. "Would Dr. Solomon suggest that charter schools have somehow just fooled state legislatures into allocating public school funding to private schools?"

But this debate not only is about what charter schools are; it also addresses how they perform.

Pointing to a 2013 study by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which looked at the performance of students attending charter schools in 26 states and New York City, Lewis notes that "students attending charter schools had greater learning gains than their traditional public school peers in reading and equivalent learning gains in mathematics."

However, Solomon notes the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that "public school outperformed charters in math and reading at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels. What people thought was a cure turns out instead to be a curse."

The debate will be published online at www.bipps.org and linked to on the institute's various social media outlets and on the websites of other organizations, including Kentucky Youth Advocates, so that Kentuckians of all political stripes can read, re-read and follow up with their own questions and comments.

This forum means no sincere Kentuckian should remain unaware of charter schools. Of course, it won't prevent anyone from continuing to be willfully, intentionally and deliberately ignorant.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky's free-market think tank.

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