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November 02, 2009
Referring to the Model T, Henry Ford famously said, ?A customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.? It turns out that Dr. Jerry Weast, the superintendent in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, feels the same way about school choice ? parents can send their kids to any school they want, as long as it's part of the traditional public school system (or you're wealthy enough to send your child to a private school):
So we look at things about school choice, and there's over 150 private schools in our community. And so there's choices for. [sic] And there's choices in our 200 [district] schools with their thematic approaches. So choice is something that's in abundant supply in Montgomery County.
The background is that the Montgomery County Board of Education recently denied two applications to start public charter schools in the county on Dr. Weast's recommendation. The State Board of Education yesterday overturned both those decisions, citing anti-charter bias, an arbitrary review process that broke the county's own rules, and a made-up standard of ?uniqueness? for new public charter schools.
The mess in Montgomery County cuts across a number of pressing issues in education reform. While the county is one of the wealthiest in the country, it has a stubborn and growing achievement gap by some measures. Complacency about good student achievement on average takes attention away from discussion about moving the needle for poor and minority kids, which is a pressing issue. There's also no reason why middle class kids don't also deserve a variety of high quality choices, a topic Peter recently brought up here.
Finally, MCPS's recommendations to kill these two charter school applications illustrate the bad fruits of our tortured system of education governance and finance. Superintendent Weast explicitly raised the specter of budget cuts in his recommendation to deny the schools' applications. He and the county Board have their eyes on what's best for district schools as an institution, and yet the law gives them a veto over innovative non-district schools that would compete with them. It's a thorny conflict of interest, but it's not inevitable. Other, better governance models for public charter schools can be found all over the country ? or just across the border in DC.