01/06/2012 01:33 pm ET Updated Mar 07, 2012

A Charter School Prayer for the New Year

'Tis the end of the season in which the lines between church and state in public education are at their most merrily blurred. This past week, in schools across the country, students and teachers are returning to hallways that, over winter break, have fought back against the Christmahanukwanzaa decorations that decked them during December by dropping them on innocent and unsuspecting floors. (For whatever reason, sticky tack and scotch tape don't hold up in the absence of human life.)

Yet as I reflect upon the passing of the Holidays, to be honest, even as a fervent defender of the First Amendment, I never get too squeamish at the sight of a Christmas tree in a school lobby, a dreidel game in a cafeteria, or a Kwanzaa candelabra on a teacher's desk. So long as all traditions are taught with equal emphasis, respect, and accuracy, I believe that there is far more to be gained than lost by incorporating our religious diversity into our curriculum, the intolerance of drywall and ceiling tiles be damned.

No, I worry much more about a different, less acknowledged way in which school prayer has reinserted itself into our national conversation about education. I am talking about the supposed birth of our dear saviors, the charter schools.

Saviors, you say? No. That can't be. Well tell that to the faces of the families of the children profiled in films like Waiting for Superman and The Lottery. Tell that to the faces of the families of the children who, in the coming year, will flock to crowded gymnasiums, lock arms, bury their heads in their hands, and pray that their numbers will be called. Tell that to the faces of the families who say -- who know -- that their children's fates rest upon some bouncing balls in a bingo cage.

America has really dropped the ball on this one. We've been so caught up in debating the expansion of charter schools through reforms like Race to the Top that we've failed to recognize a simple truth: charter schools were never supposed to be our saviors. People were never supposed to pray to them. Charters were never supposed to be the answer--they were supposed to provide answers.

When Albert Shanker, the former president of the American Federation of Teachers, first proposed the idea of charter schools, he envisioned them as opportunities for small groups of teachers and parents to collaborate and develop experimental educational environments, an idea that recalls former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis' notion of the states as "laboratories of democracy" in the federal system. If successful, the lessons learned from these pioneering schools could be applied writ large, affording all children the chance to benefit their innovations.

But ironically, in spite of the excellence of charters like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Achievement First, educators have largely learned nothing from their successes. That's not to say that charters are inherently better than traditional public schools -- studies have shown that the best charters perform as well as the best traditional public schools and that the worst charters perform just as a poorly as the worst -- but rather that in this challenging work, we cannot afford to ignore right answers, no matter where they come from.

In the face of our current educational crisis, how can we stand idly by while we have proof of concept for extended school days and school years, and fresh best practices in pedagogy, professional development, human capital strategy, teacher evaluation, and instructional leadership? Why are we leaving it to the charters to do the scaling up of these new models themselves by expanding their own fundamentally limited networks instead of implementing them en masse?

So here's my charter school prayer for the New Year: I pray that the debate surrounding charters as our saviors or our Satans ends. I pray that enterprising educational leaders around the country take the lessons that we've learned from the finest charters and apply them to their schools and school districts. And I pray that their efforts lead to the beginning of the end for that latest incarnation of school prayer that worries me most, the prayer of families whose best hope for their children's future is the random chance of a lottery.

Also, it would be nice if someone could figure out how to keep classroom decorations from falling over winter break. Charters, any ideas for solving that one?