Stories related to charter schools and their self-described movement has lately been featured in the media probably more than it has been for the past five years combined. This increase in public attention is indebted to many factors such as dedication of updated resources to the movement by the Obama administration and the latest documentary by Oscar winning director Davis Guggenheim, “Waiting for ‘Superman‘”. As it is been the case wherever money is involved, the issue stirred a hot debate, emotions ranging from characterizing charter schools as the new savior of the broken education system to the latest demons to hijack money from our much-needy schools. Whatever the case is, the issue warrants an objective look.
The nation’s first charter school was opened in Minnesota in 1992 according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Since then charter schools mushroomed all over the country, bringing the number of charter schools close to 5,000, serving 1.6 million students in 41 states. Like any new enterprise, in their initial years the movement enjoyed the freedom to grow with lax oversight. This period allowed many of today’s high performing charters, such as KIPP, experiment and flourish as well as bad apples take advantage of the imprudent regulations. While charters were flying under the radar in this period, it was usually the bad apples that made the headlines in the media.
When we came to the 2000s, tables started turning for charters as the famous “No Child Left Behind Act” made its way to the country’s classrooms. With the new regulations charters started to be held more accountable for their students’ academic achievement and how they spent their money in a manner much closer to traditional school districts than ever before. The charters that achieved the reputation of being “high-performing” paved their success in this “high-accountability” period. Today there are dozens of these schools such as nationwide KIPP Schools, California’s Green Dot Public Schools, Texas’ Harmony Public Schools or New York’s Harlem Success Academy. These charters have long track records and are subject to increasing public scrutiny.
The charter movement has come a long way and refined itself, pushing the best practices and practitioners to the top. Although charter schools are subject to almost all of the same regulations and oversight, certain myths have inherently followed the movement as the issue includes two important elements, money and children. One of the most famous of these myths is that charter schools achieve comparable academic performance by selectively forcing out weak academic students. It is important to remember charter schools give students a choice. In fact from a policy standpoint, creating schools of choice encourages families to become astute consumers of education. Charter schools students sometimes opt out and re-enter the traditional public school system for a variety of reasons. These reasons include less extracurricular activities at the high school level, absence of bus transportation or simply moving out of the area. These charter-unique challenges are most mirrored by the inequitable funding these schools receive. Regardless, in most cases charter schools still have the same attrition rate as their surrounding school district. Even successful charter schools suffer from this misconception. On August 17, 2010, USA Today ran a story on Texas’ acclaimed Harmony Public Schools. In the article Ed Fuller, a University of Texas-Austin researcher, was quoted “It’s not hard to be ‘Exemplary’ if you lose all the kids who aren’t performing”. More than one month later Harmony was featured on Texas Insider on September 27, 2010 with a title “What Drives High Achievement At Harmony Charters?” This time Fuller conceded that the percentage (Fuller reported the network’s attrition rate as 50% in USA Today) was merely an estimate based on an informal review of high school-level data, not a comprehensive study. Fuller also said that he did not find that the students who left had significantly lower test scores than those who stayed. This is an example of the same account reported in two completely different ways.
When we look at the facts, in the 2009-10 school year, of the 75 charter schools in Texas operated by Uplift Education, IDEA, KIPP, YES Prep and Harmony, 64% achieved the state’s highest ranking of exemplary. This percentage was more than double the percentage of traditional public schools receiving exemplary ratings within the traditional school districts where these charter schools operate. It is important to note that under Texas’ inequitable funding formula, charter school districts receive on-average around 80% of the funding a traditional urban district receives per student, making their academic performance all the more notable in terms of strong taxpayer dollar stewardship.
Unfortunately, the attempt by many to understand this substantial disparity in academic performance has led to both honest misunderstandings as well as the purposeful spread of misinformation by charter school opponents. These “myths” distract from the numerous substantive reasons for this difference in academic performance: longer school hours and more school days (made possible by lean central office costs), a strong and intense focus on leadership development, multiple pipelines of human capital, and a strong culture created through smaller schools, strong relationships between educators and families, and high-expectations for student achievement.
Charter schools already became an integral part of our education system and they do not seem to be going anywhere. The good ones deserve a fair look at their performance as their public service means to better the lives of our children.
SOURCE: Leave Charters Alone