- - Tuesday, January 1, 2013

America has become the great nation it is because of its traditions, its values and its constitutional foundations. It is also great because, though the Constitution does not specifically mention it, the people decided at one point to make a priority out of giving every child access to education.

For a nation built of immigrants, this was an important, even seminal, decision. Each generation, whether born in the United States or brought here by ship, plane or train, must learn (in addition to reading, writing and arithmetic) what it means to be an American.

This imperative has helped homogenize our culture for the good, creating a uniform understanding of U.S. citizenship. Unfortunately, the system of free public education tasked with that responsibility has its antecedents in the 19th century and is not sufficient to meet the needs of a 21st-century nation firmly integrated into the global economy. To put it simply, one size no longer fits all. In the age of charter schools, education choice, distance learning and the Internet, it doesn’t need to.

It is possible to customize learning programs in ways that were unthinkable even 20 years ago. Nevertheless, the educational establishment remains wedded to the current system and is unwilling to think outside the box when looking for reforms and improvements. Charter schools — primary or secondary schools that receive public money but are not subject to the same rules, regulations and statutes that apply to other public schools — are a particularly intriguing choice. Operated by teachers, parents, nonprofit groups, universities or corporations and often offering a specialized field of instruction, they provide an alternative to the rigidity of the current K-12 educational structure.

They also typically provide a better education, which is why the competition for enrollment is so intense. Many communities in which they operate are forced to hold lotteries to determine who may attend. More parents than there are available spaces see them as opportunities for their children to receive a quality education of the kind not available in the normal course of affairs.

In Chester, Pa., a formerly thriving manufacturing community just outside Philadelphia, the Chester Community Charter School, which started with fewer than 100 students in 1998, has more than 3,000 spread across nine buildings. It has a consistently higher success rate than that attained by the area’s public schools, which generally are considered to be among the worst in the state.

Creating what it calls a “Private, Public School” culture, the school offers a 10-1 student-teacher ratio as well as academic programs created in partnership with nearby colleges and universities, which the regular public schools, by contrast, simply cannot match.

Dependent on public funds, the school is as vulnerable to economic realities as any other school. Yet, as its CEO, David E. Clark Jr., wrote in a recent op-ed column, despite 50 percent of the school’s funding being withheld, forcing drastic cuts in student services, its students “outperformed the rest of the Chester Upland School District in the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments in reading and math by 20 percent.”

The specialization offered by charter schools can be of great benefit not only to regular students, but to those with special needs. “Even skeptics who question the value and significance of charter schools will welcome the news they are making important strides in serving children with special needs,” says the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.

In “Unique Schools Serving Unique Students,” the center found the different approaches to education available at public charter schools meant students with special needs had a greater chance to achieve academic success.

Through in-depth analysis of six charter schools around the country, the center identified several important lessons for educators and policy leaders coming out of parent surveys and six case studies, including:

School choice is important to parents of children with special needs.

Effective inclusion for students with less severe needs is a particular strength of many charter schools.

Charter schools are revealing practices that may contribute to strong instructional programs for students with disabilities in all schools.

A new age requires new approaches, grounded in traditional values. This certainly is true in the field of education, where charter schools are showing the way forward.

Peter Roff is a senior fellow at Let Freedom Ring, a Pennsylvania-based public policy organization.