In the heated debate surrounding Regis Academy Charter School, which is slated to open in Cherry Hill next fall, one important point is often overlooked: No school works for every student. That's why all families, no matter where they live, deserve a choice of publicly funded schools.
Indeed, that was the intent of the state Legislature when it first authorized charter schools in New Jersey in 1996. The state's lawmakers did not limit these public education alternatives to school districts that are poor or urban.
The relatively affluent suburban school districts of Cherry Hill and Voorhees have nevertheless argued that because their students perform just fine on state tests, a charter school would be an unnecessary burden on their budgets. New competition may well represent a financial burden for any group that has cornered the market for decades. But in public education and every other arena, competition inspires all players to improve.
In Cherry Hill last year, the share of black children who failed the standardized eighth-grade language-arts test was three times the corresponding share of white children. In Voorhees, 86 percent of white eighth graders passed the state math test, while only 58 percent of black students did. Can we really say these districts have "great" schools if they are great for only some of the kids?
But the issue here is not race; it's choice. We must give all parents a chance to choose innovative approaches to education. After all, even among white students in Cherry Hill, almost a fifth failed the state language-arts exam last year. That shows, once again, that no school fits every kid.
So what is Regis Academy all about? It's about a different way to learn.
Regis will use a learning model known as MicroSociety, under which students create a functioning society within a school. Students learn to run a business, use technology, and develop government and social agencies. "They become immersed in the realities of a free-market economy replete with taxes, property concerns, income diversity, and politics," as we put it in our charter application.
Studies have shown that children in MicroSociety schools outperform their counterparts in math and English. But we aren't saying that this kind of education is superior for all children. Rather, we are saying that this model may fit some students - black and white, rich and poor - better than the traditional, centuries-old model of schooling.
If 169 students decide to attend Regis next year, it will cost the Cherry Hill district a mere 1 percent of its budget. And the district will not be responsible for educating those children, which should mean savings for any district that is run efficiently.
Moreover, no one will force any student to attend Regis. Those parents who are happy with the traditional options in Cherry Hill can continue to send their children to those schools. But those who aren't have the right to make another choice.