What is a charter?

It’s the authorization by which something comes into being.

William Penn was given a charter for the land that became Pennsylvania. It was the Charter of Liberties that he later granted the state’s first ruling body in 1701 that took Penn’s Woods from being his holding to being its own entity.

A charter is meant to define parameters and breathe life into an idea. It’s not meant to be the lightning bolt that animates Frankenstein’s monster. Pennsylvania’s charter and cyber charter schools have used their charters both ways.

There are good charter schools — schools that teach kids things they would never learn in a traditional public school because of demands those schools have to satisfy.

A good charter school starts with a plan that defines exactly why they have a different idea for education and what could make it work. It might be an arts focus, or an emphasis on languages and culture. It might be about science, or it might be about an innovative teaching method.

But there are also bad charter schools. There are schools that don’t have a framework beyond acquiring as much money as possible while spending as little as possible in return.

And in the middle there are charter schools that are less good or bad than they are unfocused and undefined. They are run on the premise that they don’t want to suffer the problems of public schools but without much direction beyond that.

Charter schools, in short, are a metaphor for politics. There are good ideas, bad ideas and a lot that sound good but have no vision to make them work.

So, good for Gov. Tom Wolf for taking on the lack of accountability and transparency that allow bad and mediocre charter schools to give the good ones a bad name. The governor said Tuesday he wanted to reform charters through a mix of proposed legislation and executive orders.

But let’s hope Wolf is working with a solid charter himself, some kind of plan with what needs to be fixed and what doesn’t.

The best way to reform charter schools is to make them obsolete by improving traditional public schools so that those are the places people want their kids to spend their days — places where students learn skills that will carry them through life and help them reach today’s goals as well as tomorrow’s.

Maybe the perfect reform is to give public schools a better charter.

The above editorial was published Aug. 14 by the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Its views are its own.

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