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Are charter schools the answer to America's public education challenges?

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Students at Laura Jeffrey Academy sing.
Students at Laura Jeffrey Academy in St. Paul, Minn., sing along to Rachel Platten's "Fight Song" during an assembly at the school that was organized to help students at the girl-focused charter school process the defeat of Hillary Clinton, whom the school endorsed, St. Paul, Minn., Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016.
Tom Baker for MPR News

Education secretary Betsy DeVos is a champion of charter schools. 

Launched only 25 years ago, charter schools run themselves independently while still spending taxpayer money as they try to innovate their way to new educational breakthroughs to  benefit children who aren't succeeding elsewhere. They're trying to prove what works and what does not work.

Minnesota passed the nation's first charter school law, but are charter schools effective? Have they lived up to their promise, or just taken financial resources — and students — away from public schools? 

A new debate from the Intelligence Squared series explores these issues.

The debate motion is: "Charter schools are overrated."

For: Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University's College of Education. And Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor at Sacramento State University and founding board member of the Network for Public Education.

Against: Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform. And Gerard Robinson, resident fellow at American Enterprise Institute, and former Florida Commissioner of Education.

Opening statements: For the motion

On paper, the idea of charter schools is very impressive and at its start had admirable goals to innovate education, said Gary Miron.

However, systematic research shows that charter schools aren't very different from public schools in terms of innovation.

"Charter schools were not supposed to perform similarly," Miron said. "They were supposed to outperform traditional public schools. Why would we create another public school — parallel school system that performs similarly?"

The original goals of charter schools were lost as private interest and profit motivations took control, he said.

Opening statements: Against the motion

Charter schools have one large advantage over public schools: more freedom for teachers, said Gerard Robinson.

He says the original charter schools were pushed for by teachers, and it's when teachers are involved in their founding that charter schools work, and work well.

"Find a social movement in the last 25 years where ordinary people have been given public money to do extraordinary things. It's happening through the charter school movement," he said.

And Robinson says while charter schools won't solve all the problems with education in America, it also isn't the biggest problem. As public schools fail to meet goals for many children, charter schools may be a means to keep education moving forward until we find a solution.

To listen to the debate, click the audio player above.

Further reading

• 2014: Problems at St. Paul charter school could lead to tighter state controls

• Report: In racially diverse suburbs, charter schools getting whiter

• More from MPR News Presents

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