09/25/2007 06:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Get Out of Their Darn Way and Let Educators Innovate

When Jackie Elliot made the switch to teaching, from a career in public health, she was 36-years-old and by no means a naïf - she understood that public education was not in the best possible shape. Still, in 1986 as a novice teacher at Pacoima Elementary School in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, she was astonished at what she found, not just at Pacoima but all over the Los Angeles Unified School District. Classrooms and schools were filled to overflowing, individualized attention was rare, a sense of nurture was absent.

"In public health, we were very committed to our patients," Jackie told me last week. "If we were doing in the health field what we are doing in education, we would have dead bodies littering the streets."

Like many idealistic, energetic young teachers across the nation, Jackie decided to push for change within the system. And like many of her idealistic, energetic cohort, she quickly realized the sheer weight and will of the bureaucracy she was up against. "Working with this stuff, at Pacoima, I just hit walls," she says. "I couldn't even get parents into my classroom because I was forbidden to have parent volunteers."

Jackie began to formulate a vision for a public middle school that did things differently. It was not a complicated vision, nor an expensive one; indeed, this new school could be run, she figured, on the same per student monies allotted to mainstream public schools like Pacoima. She began to work it out on paper: Twenty-five children per classroom, 100 per grade level, school size no more than 300. Parent engagement. Counseling services, because she knew from her public health days that when kids didn't feel well, they weren't going to learn well. Arts programs. Doors opened at 7 in the morning, closed at 6 at night, so that kids who wanted to could get off the streets. A structure that doesn't resemble a penitentiary.

She wrote a proposal solid enough to receive startup charter school funding from the federal government. She put out the word that she was looking for students, scheduled parent meetings in a nearby auditorium, and in no time at all had a full roster. One might assume that Jackie was finally operating outside of the oppressive district umbrella - but one would be wrong. In a landscape of absurdities, this one's a whopper: The very district that Jackie and other L.A. education entrepreneurs are revolting against is itself responsible for green lighting or rejecting their charter school applications.

It's like "asking McDonalds to approve the opening of a Burger King across the street," one education mover and shaker scoffed to me, recently.

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Setting Jackie aside for a moment, might we agree on a few central truths?

Let's take as axiomatic that public education in the U.S. is screwed up and needs fixing; there's no need to waste space quoting the trove of statistics demonstrating the failure of our educational system, particularly in urban, low-income areas (alright, a few stats: each year, nearly a third of public high school students fail to graduate with their class; the number is closer to half for black, Hispanic and Native American populations). Let's also take as axiomatic that most teachers and school administrators would prefer that their students learn, grow in mind and heart, and succeed in life. Students, we can assume, would also like to grow and to succeed.

So there is a general disconnect between what we want for students, what students want for themselves - and what students get out of the educational process. We can blame teachers for not bucking the established order, students for checking out too easily, parents for insufficient support of schools and their children, politicians for employing empty rhetoric over action, society-at-large for its grossly misplaced priorities... let's go ahead and blame all these folks, not forgetting ourselves. There is plenty of culpability to go around. Indeed, let's take as axiomatic that we are all to blame, each in his or her own way, either through action or inaction.

I'd like to suggest a less obvious axiom: That a better educational system is within reach if we'd only get out of the darn way and let reform happen. Why in the world do Californians tolerate a process whereby charter school applicants must seek permission from the school district? Charter schools are in no way perfect by default, but shouldn't we encourage new ways of thinking and doing rather than tossing up unnecessary roadblocks? Some other states employ so-called "alternative authorizers," boards or public officials who are authorized to approve or deny charter applications independently of the their districts - Ohio, for instance, and Indiana, where the mayor of Indianapolis has himself chartered several schools.* We would all do well to emulate one of those models.

In California, if a charter is denied by the district, it may be appealed to the county, and finally to the State Board of Education. In the last three months alone, at least three different charters (New West Charter School, Micro-Enterprise Charter Academy and Lifeline Education Charter School) which had previously been denied by their districts and by L.A. County were approved by the state. If the state board, not exactly known for its lax standards, is willing to approve these charters, then why had they been denied twice previously? Even if the right decision is made in the end, this is a terrible amount of red tape to wade through, particularly for teachers who are acting out of inspiration and goodwill and must scrap about for the time and money to soldier on.

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Back where we left her, Jackie Elliot was taking her charter proposal to the L.A. Unified School District. One of their first questions, she remembers, was "why do you think you can do it better?", and although she did not say it out loud, her immediate thought was, "you have to be an imbecile not to do it better."

Part of the resistance, at that point, stemmed simply from the fact that charters were a new phenomenon and district bureaucrats didn't know how to handle the process. But another part of the problem, Jackie says, was that "they felt frightened. Why would they approve somebody to start a middle school that might do better than theirs, and would make them look inadequate? The charter schools can be models for them, but in reality, they'd rather not see us exist, because if there's a school that's doing better than they are, it's going to propagate the growth of the movement and make them look worse."

Long story short, after an arduous process Jackie did get her charter - as she tells it, when the district finally realized that she would not go away - and PUC Schools** came into existence. Their first school, Community Charter Middle School, was in 1999 the first charter school ever to open in the San Fernando Valley, and since then PUC has added 7 new charter schools to their portfolio. Although test scores alone cannot demonstrate the full efficacy of a school, and our cultural overemphasis on testing is a major problem in its own right, test scores have nevertheless become the major evaluative tool in education, and so it is worth mentioning that the PUC Schools' latest California State Test scores are solidly above nearby mainstream schools.

But the point here is not to argue the virtues, or drawbacks, of any one charter organization. The point is to work out kinks in the process by which they come into being, so that when a teacher's frustration blossoms into epiphany and the urge for action, she encounters support and encouragement rather than raised eyebrows and needless bureaucratic hurdles. We all agree that public education is a mess, and one of the best remedies is also one of the simplest - allow the innovators room to innovate!

* The California Board of Education is an alternative authorizer in that specialized "statewide benefit" charters can appeal directly to the Board, but even this ability recently came under attack. In their defense, California legislators have authored several failed bills to fix the problem (Assembly Bill 2764 in 2004, Senate Bill 844 in 2005).

** Full disclosure: NewSchools Venture Fund, where I am a part time journalist-in-residence, provides support to charter schools including PUC Schools.