Issues & Insights
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Educational Choice Saves The Day Amid Shutdowns — Especially For At-Risk Kids

To say that the coronavirus has up-ended school life in American is an understatement. Sudden school closures had school districts scrambling to implement remote learning, a tall order indeed, and some schools have done better than others.

Most notably: charter schools.

That shouldn’t be surprising: “innovation” and “flexibility” – long missing from traditional institutions – are practically the middle names of charters.  No wonder they were poised to be nimble and ready to roll in the face of the COVID-19 upheaval – often the first in any region to start-up remote learning, and the last schools standing as traditional districts gave up and pulled the plug on the remainder of the school year.

For example: schools closed temporarily in Tennessee on March 20 and for the remainder of the year on April 15, to be replaced by distance learning – which didn’t start in at least one district until 12 days later. Compare that more than one full month of no instruction in traditional schools to some charter schools in that same district that started remote teaching within a day of the initial shutdown. Similarly, in parts of Georgia, shuttered traditional schools have called it a day – while charter schools in the same districts are continuing to educate via distance learning through the end of the academic year.

Anecdotes aside, what’s becoming clear is that charter schools can and will deliver quality education when traditional schools can’t – or won’t.

The latter is an even more troubling product of traditional schools’ ossified culture, as reflected in the comments of Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, one of two national unions. She called online learning a “stopgap measure” for which educators had no training, and recommended alternatives such as “telephone trees, mailed lessons and assignments, and instruction via local radio or TV stations.”

Instruction at the speed of snail mail in the Digital Age? As if.

Contrast charters’ can-do mindset that enables them to take on the toughest challenges – with perhaps the compelling example being their success in reaching the disadvantaged and minority communities most at-risk in any environment, but especially in the face of shutdowns. 

Here in Florida, Free/Reduced Lunch students represent 55% of the population, meaning both traditional and charter schools are often majority minority. This demographic is also the mostly likely not to have computers or internet access at home.  Understandably, complaints abound today about inequities in disadvantaged students’ access to distance learning during this crisis, a disparity that educators nationwide are concerned has left many at-risk kids falling further behind.

Yet just as the Florida Department of Education reported last year that “students in charter schools outperformed their peers in traditional schools in nearly every category” – including 93% of school-lunch-entitled students – that record of success with at at-risk populations extended to distance learning.

While traditional schools have struggled providing distance learning even for non-at-risk youngsters, charter school implementation of remote learning from the beginning of this crisis has enabled their disadvantaged charges to maintain their connection to school – and, hopefully, to avoid losing ground to higher-income students.

It is hard to know what lies ahead in education delivery in the age of COVID. But there are a few things that are certain. First, the “new normal” for the upcoming school year and beyond will be anything but normal.   

Second, as in their response to the challenge of maintaining continuity in the face of shutdowns, charter schools will lead the way in discovering innovative and flexible ways to succeed which traditional schools are simply unprepared, and worse, unwilling to do.

And third, parents who have the opportunity will, more than ever, choose charter schools and opt out of the traditional system’s no-can-do culture and glacial pace of change. They know that the COVID-19 crisis is just one more instance of choice coming to the rescue of American education – and that many more such heroics lie ahead.

Shari L. McCartney is a director with Tripp Scott, a Fort Lauderdale, FL-based firm, who focuses her practice on business and regulatory issues in industries such as healthcare and education

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