If the Warren County School Board turns down the Charter School Ownership Initiative's application to establish an Eisenhower Charter Middle/High School - the chances of which we admit are slim -it would create an interesting appeal to the state Department of Education.
In fact, the PDE would be faced with a decision that could have far-reaching ramifications for the future of charter schools across the commonwealth.
To wit: Should charter schools be established where the impetus is to maintain a building, either new or existing, that a public school district decides to close, contemplates closing, or is even rumored to close for logistical and economic reasons?
Heretofore the driving force of charter schools has been to either offer unique opportunities that haven't been available to students in an area through specialized programming (similar to magnet schools like arts or technical academies, or cyber charters) or as an educational entity based on innovative programming and teaching concepts to provide an alternative to failing programs.
The current Eisenhower program is not failing; in fact, it excels within the Warren County School District. The charter application copies WCSD curriculum, adding only an agri-business program, something that could have been done within the school district if sufficient interest was shown. We can't recall a request for such a curriculum being brought before the board. As such, the Eisenhower Charter addresses neither of the two parameters that have been the traditional reasons for founding a charter school.
However, there is another question to be weighed here.
It is clear through the election process and the outpouring of support in the Northern Attendance Area of the WCSD that a majority of the residents of that area want and are willing to support an independent charter school. That public support plays to the concept that while the state and federal governments require and guarantee public education through grade 12, school boards are elected locally to ensure and design the delivery of those educational services. Public education in America is still, in many respects, a local issue.
This application would force the PDE to explore a gray area created by the state's charter school enabling law and how it can be used to effectively break up an existing school district school-by-school, while still requiring the original entity to maintain some of the logistical requirements of the new one, such as transportation.
At a time when the PDE has encouraged the consolidation of districts to reduce costs and promote efficiency, does the effective de-consolidation of districts through the establishment of charter schools run contrary to that effort?
The debate over the Eisenhower Charter effort has been emotional and fraught with rancor. There has been little if any discussion of the precedents it could set, the long term financial and organizational ramifications for local districts as well as state government.
And, it begs the basic question: Are charter schools the vanguard of a sea change in the concept of public education in America? Will what we know as school districts under the current model eventually become a thing of the past, replaced by individual, independent charter schools?