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A Democrat for charter schools

AP photo

AP photo

EDITORS NOTE: Tom Watkins had the lead role in creating the first charter schools in Michigan and Florida – six years prior to serving as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools in 2001-2005. This excerpt comes from an essay he wrote in the March/April 1996 edition of The New Democrat magazine.The article foreshadows much of what is playing out concerning charter schools – the good, bad and ugly – in Michigan and across the country today. The complete article can be found here.

The trials and tribulations of a Democrat who supports charter schools
By Tom Watkins, 1996

“You want to create a charter school? What are you, some kind of right-wing nut?” As a Democrat who helped create Michigan’s first charter school, I’ve had to answer that question (and meaner versions) often during the past six years. Yes, I support public schools and believe they have shaped this country for the better. No, I do not believe that teachers are the problem with public education. But yes, I do support public school choice and breaking up the exclusive franchise that school districts hold on families.

In spite of public education’s many past achievements, the current system leaves far too many children behind. Efforts to “fix” existing schools may be laudable, but more can and should be done—not for the system, but for students and their parents.

If you support public education, you should embrace charter schools wholeheartedly. Far from the dire threat that apologists for the existing system make them out to be, charter schools, in fact, may be the last line of defense against a massive exodus into private schools by families with the economic means.

People want public schools to change. By providing innovative options within the public system, we are creating competition and exerting pressure on all public schools to improve, thus keeping—and maybe even attracting back—the far too many students whom existing schools are pushing away. Charter schools are a textbook “third way” alternative to both the untenable status quo and full-scale privatization.

Public schools were created, in part, on the premise that education would be the great social equalizer. Yet due to inertia or tradition, far too many schools, especially  in urban centers, are failing to prepare children to compete in the Information Age. Change is the most talked about and least acted on concept in the school re- form movement. If bringing about change means injecting a productive level of stress and tension within public schools, so be it. We need to loosen the grip that stifles creativity and risk taking.

Charter schools are not THE answer. However, the laws now on the books in 20 states have the potential to trans- form public education into a system that is as radically different and beneficial as Henry Ford’s assembly line was from the craft system it replaced.

My path into the charter schools debate was somewhat unorthodox—my training and background is in health and human services. . . . The president of WayneStateUniversity in Detroit, David Adamany, made me an intriguing job offer. He invited me to become his special assistant for public school initiatives. My chief function would be to create a new public charter school independent of the Detroit public school bureaucracy.

Then and even now, people would ask me, “How can you collaborate with the enemy (conservatives, Republicans, free marketers, etc.) in supporting the establishment of charter schools?” or “Don’t you realize this is the camel’s nose under the tent, the first step down the slippery slope to vouchers?” I point out to these questioners that of the first eight states to pass charter school legislation, four had Democratic governors. More impressively, 13 of the 16 House and Senate chambers in those eight states were controlled by Democrats. Hey, even President Clinton supports them. If I am wrong, I am not alone, nor am I in bad company.

Read more here.

Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins is a U.S./China business and educational consultant. He served as Michigan State Superintendent of Schools, 2001-05, was deputy and Director of the Michigan Department of Mental Health, 1983-90 and served as President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, FL., 1996-2001. He has a life-long interest in China and serves on the University of Michigan Confucius Institute, the Detroit Chinese Business Association and Michigan Economic Development Corporation international advisory board