Board reopens charter school debate for troubled students

? Although its chairman says he’s not aggressively pursuing the issue, the State Board of Education reopened a contentious debate Wednesday over creating special charter schools for troubled students.

Education Commissioner Bob Corkins supports having more charter schools in Kansas, viewing them as a way to encourage innovation in the classroom. But his critics worry that allowing more such schools is designed to undermine traditional public schools.

Charter schools are public schools freed from some state regulations. In some states, charter schools are run by private groups or companies, but in Kansas, the 26 schools are tied to the 24 districts in which they operate.

At Corkins’ suggestion, the board heard from Donald Howard, president of School Reform Inc., a Lewisville, Texas, company that has started 25 schools across the nation, most of them in Texas.

The company not only has developed its own math and reading courses but is promoting its “Eagle Project” format for helping students who are failing or at risk of failing.

Board Chairman Steve Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican, said while he’s not aggressively pursuing more charter schools, he wants to keep the board – and districts – updated on what’s happening.

But board member Sue Gamble, a Shawnee Republican, dismissed Howard’s presentation as a “sales pitch” and the debate about charter schools as a distraction.

Howard told the board that traditional “chalk and talk” schools don’t reach at-risk students. Instead, he said, they need programs that emphasize personalized instruction and use of computers.

But Gamble noted many of Howard’s ideas already are being used in Kansas. Also, she said, seven Project Eagle schools in Texas are not academically successful.

Howard acknowledged being “embarrassed” by some schools’ performance but noted that the schools operate independently of his company.