San Antonio’s public school officials could learn from their peers in other U.S. cities where running public schools like charters empowers teachers, administrators, and parents, author David Osborne said Monday night at a panel discussion on public education.

The director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Reinventing America’s Schools project was joined at the Pearl Studio by Pedro Martinez, San Antonio Independent School District superintendent; Marisa Bono, Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s chief of policy; and Mark Larson, KIPP San Antonio chief executive officer. Rivard Report Publisher Robert Rivard moderated the panel.

Osborne offered ways by which public schools in San Antonio could benefit from operating like charters in terms of autonomy, accountability, diversity of school designs, and parental choice.

His new book, Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System, calls for a major shift in public education.

He told the audience of more than 50 people that public school systems across the United States have, for various reasons, failed to keep pace with advances in technology and the changing social and educational needs of youth, especially in inner-city neighborhoods.

Such challenges are compounded by archaic rules, top-down administration, and school board politics, he added.

“Our public schools are trapped in … a centralized system, and they have been too rigid to change rapidly,” Osborne said. “They disempower their principals and their teachers. People who feel disempowered never give you their best effort.”

In prior decades, Osborne explained, public school leaders had little to no competition and, therefore, little incentive for innovation. An increase in charter schools and other alternative education providers, however, has raised the stakes, he added.

The author suggested that independent school districts could contract with a network of autonomous, accountable public campuses operated by independent organizations – preferably nonprofits. That way, operators could streamline rules and establish the right pay scale, programming, personnel, and educational model for its campus(es).

“The real accountability mechanism is accountability of results,” Osborne said. “If you’re doing a great job, you may get to expand, you may get to replicate it. If you’re doing a lousy job, you’re probably going to be closed and get replaced.”

A wider variety of schools serving an expanding array of students’ interests, backgrounds, and learning styles would be ideal, Osborne said, because “treating [all schools] the same is profoundly unfair to a majority of [students].”

This would also empower parents as they would have more options in terms of operations, rules, programming, and educators at their children’s schools.

Osborne cited examples of successful public education reform in cities such as New Orleans, Indianapolis, Denver, and Washington, D.C.

Following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana state government created the Recovery School District to capitalize on an opportunity to overhaul New Orleans’ public school system.

The Recovery School District turned all of New Orleans’ schools into charter campuses. The following decade saw improving performances, although many of those rankings have slid a little in recent years.

Regardless, Osborne said, “the evidence from New Orleans, Denver, and D.C. tell us that with this 21st-century model, we can double the effectiveness of the school system in a decade or less.”

Martinez said a long history of poverty in large segments of San Antonio’s urban core challenges innovative public education. Still, he is optimistic that much of what Osborne suggested could work locally.

“If you can get a diverse set of learners together, with the best teachers possible – I don’t care if it’s a charter school, I don’t care if it’s a traditional neighborhood school, or a magnet school – if you can do that, you will get strong results,” he said.

But the key, Martinez said, is providing each school with the right resources and community partnerships.

San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez participates in a panel of the future of education in America.
San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez (center) speaks on the state of the public school system in San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Some of SAISD’s schools already offer nontraditional educational models. Charter systems like KIPP San Antonio help support programs at local public systems, such as the college readiness program that is set to go districtwide at SAISD.

“It is a myth that you can do the same type of work with the same number of resources,” Martinez said. “When you’re dealing with impoverished children, the needs are too great. It’s not because they can’t learn – in fact, I found the opposite. It’s amazing when you give children this access and we see the results.”

Bono said innovation plays a big role in reforming public schools, mainly because the State has been underfunding public education. That tends to hurt low-income communities the most, so traditional public schools must do a lot with little resources.

Both public school and charter systems could benefit from identifying and replicating common characteristics of high-performing campuses, she added.

“There are some charter systems that are doing things really, really well, and there are some traditional public schools that are doing things really, really well,” she added.

Chief of Policy for Mayor Nirenberg, Marisa Bono speaks to the importance of the states role in education.
Marisa Bono, chief of policy for Mayor Ron Nirenberg, speaks to the importance of the state’s role in education. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

His focus in leading the KIPP system in San Antonio is on providing the best education possible, Larson said, not on distinguishing the charter from a traditional public school system.

“What we are really trying to achieve is great schools for all of our kids, no matter their zip code, ethnic background, educational attainment level of their parents, or anything else you can put on that list,” Larson said. “That’s really the point. And if we make sure we stay focused about that, about what do we really, really want, then we get to make decisions with a longer view in mind.”

Larson said he sees the KIPP network of free public charter schools as adding to the landscape a positive, disruptive force in education.

“We have an opportunity here in San Antonio,” he said, “to create … good schools together.”

KIPP: San Antonio's CEO, Mark Larson shares his thoughts on the role of public versus charter in today's education system.
Mark Larson, chief executive officer of KIPP San Antonio, speaks on the role of charter schools in San Antonio’s education system. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report
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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.