It's ironic that recent headlines about "charter school failure" appeared alongside headlines about proposed bailouts for Detroit.

Both stories reflect short-term public concerns and the potential for short-term political thinking. And the outcome of both conversations will determine our long-term democratic health and economic prosperity. We can't let a "charter vs. district" argument distract us from more important questions about reforming schools and learning.

Imagine if the headlines about Detroit read "failure of automobiles clear from recent data," not the failure of particular companies and leaders? What if news articles didn't differentiate between the success and viability of different models of cars; for example, treating Escalades the same as hybrid Escapes? What if CEOs blamed their problems on ill-informed and incapable consumers who bought Honda Civics rather than Chevy Cobalts? What if the noon-hour debate was about getting marginally better mileage or reliability, when we need to transform both?

I believe the public would see right through this -- and would recognize the dangers inherent in having the wrong conversation and acting as if it will solve our problems.

Twenty years after the Citizens League proposed charter schools, the last thing we need is an argument about "charters vs. district schools," as the report from the Institute on Race and Poverty and the reporting from the Star Tribune suggest. We could eliminate charter schools tomorrow and still have an enormous educational crisis on our hands. Using this report to limit chartering at the Legislature in 2009 would be a big mistake.

Charters are a way of creating public schools. Nothing more. They are vehicles, with a variety of "models." And the data on results show that the distinction between successful and unsuccessful public schools is not between charters and districts. Harvest Prep and other individual schools are doing an excellent job bringing mostly low-income students of color up to proficiency in reading and math. What matters is the leadership capacity of teachers and administrators, how the teaching model matches the capabilities of the students, and whether the school helps these learners and their parents connect with each other and the community.

We need to learn from the schools that work -- charter and district -- and figure out how to replicate them to scale, providing good school choices, not just school choice.

We need a conversation about how to increase the capacity of individual parents to participate in schools, instead of blaming them for their choices or their frustrations with existing schools.

We need a conversation about transforming teaching and learning. Comparing the insufficient outcomes of the Choice is Yours program to the insufficient outcomes from other charter and district programs misses the fact that we need radically improved learning from students in all schools. More than 30 percent of high-school graduates are unprepared for postsecondary education, and we face significant worker shortages in the near future. The achievement gap we should be worried about is not racial, or between charters and district, but between the knowledge and skills our economy and democracy demand and what we're currently achieving from all schools. Minnesotans, and our elected officials and public-school leaders, know we need transformation in schooling as much as we need transformation in the auto industry.

And we need a better conversation about race. Our public schools and our public conversations about them are a backdrop for Minnesota's very real racial tensions. Comparing the current racial compositions of charter schools, which are the result of the voluntary choices parents of color make, to involuntary segregation in the 1950s is patronizing and misleading at best. Trust me. The tone and content of this recent "segregation" conversation takes us on a ride that we will regret. All schools, regardless of their racial makeup, can and must create citizens who can govern for our democracy and produce for our commonwealth. And we need journalism to lead this conversation, not fall into the traps set by ideologues and system-defenders on all sides of this issue.

Like two parents having a petty argument in the front seat, this "district vs. charter" debate misses the fact that we've got more important things to talk about and a long journey ahead of us. We're driving an old car that is about to run out of gas, and we're at risk of missing our exit. The kids in the back seat know it. Do we?

Sean Kershaw is executive director of the Citizens League and is on the site council of his son's district school, Highland Park Elementary, and on the board of the Hiawatha Leadership Academy charter school in Minneapolis.