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Dare we take a risk on children’s education? Dare we avoid it?

United Community School, a Charlotte charter school, just opened for a second year because parents took a chance in 2014.
United Community School, a Charlotte charter school, just opened for a second year because parents took a chance in 2014. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

Parents should know better than to send their children to a first-year charter school.

The wording may not be precise, but the gist of the comment stuck with me. Another new charter school had folded soon after opening. The writer was chiding parents for taking the risk.

The problem, of course, is that if everyone sits out the first year there is no second, no chance to build a record of success.

It illustrates a contradiction I’ve seen over and over: When we talk about how to improve public education, most of us demand bold innovation.

When we talk about our own children, our own schools and neighborhoods, most of us balk at change.

And yet ...

Hundreds of parents in the Charlotte area will send their children to brand-new charter schools next week, knowing there’s a risk but hoping to build something good.

Around the state, parents are unpacking boxes in new homes chosen to give their kids a shot at better schools.

Others have taken a chance on the state’s Opportunity Scholarships or the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools magnet lottery, believing that switching to a private school or getting into a different public school will brighten their child’s prospects.

And it’s not just families stepping out.

Thousands of new teachers are finishing up their seating charts and bulletin boards, getting ready to face their very first class.

First-time principals and heads of school are settling into new offices, knowing the eyes of a community are on them and failure can be devastating.

Most courageous of all, students who have been labeled failures or treated as outcasts are finding the guts to come back and say “This year I can make it better.”

They’re all pushing past the natural resistance to risk and change because, despite all the shortcomings, public education still holds our best hope for opportunity.

Our job, as a society, is to make sure everyone who’s willing to seize that opportunity has the best possible chance to thrive.

People will spend a lot of this year arguing about how to do that.

Some see a growing role for private enterprise. Some see that as an attack on public education.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is trying to untangle the threads of student assignment, academic achievement and neighborhood vitality. It doesn’t get any harder than that.

But for now, as school bells ring across North Carolina, let’s salute the hope that a new year brings – and the courage it takes to make hope a reality.

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