Themes in the News for the week of June 28 to July 2, 2010 | By UCLA IDEA Staff
07-02-2010 -- Charter schools have emerged as a great education hope for the 21st century. It’s easy to be outraged by low performance in traditional schools and imagine how charters can solve many serious problems.
Charters emerged as laboratory sites where educators could carefully test innovative learning and teaching strategies that might then be useful in the more general public school environment. To accomplish this mission, charters were relieved of many of the regulations and benchmarks that applied to the non-chartered schools in the system.
However, this original mission is being expanded into a model for transforming the ways public schools are organized. As this transformed purpose of charters takes hold, and as more children and more of the “system” are affected, the stakes of copying charter models become higher and deserve closer scrutiny.
As more charters gain more years of experience, it’s time to distinguish the real, core promise behind the successes of some charter schools from the unproven, wishful thinking that guides some in the onrushing charter-school “movement.”
Further, when charter successes are identified, they must be attributed accurately. If test scores in one charter model improve, then some elements of that charter might be worth replicating, but not necessarily all. On the other hand, schools seeking to replicate successful charter models “on the cheap,” by skimping on resources or well-qualified teachers, will have poor prospects.
As new data on charters are collected, keys to charter successes are revealed; but so are overly-ambitious claims. Given this mix of data, reformers need to be advocates for the proven elements of charters, and they need to be skeptical about schools that don’t account for the full and complex enterprise of providing excellent education for all students.
For example, California legislators recently debated legislation proposed by Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica (Educated Guess). Assembly Bill 1950 would have imposed more financial and academic oversight to charters, including auditing requirements and stricter achievement goals prior to renewing the schools’ charters. The proposed bill arose out of the realization that many charters are not rigorous in their accounting—neither with their finances nor their academic programs.
Brownley withdrew the bill when it became clear there wasn’t enough support for the accountability sought within it (Educated Guess). Two national surveys were released this week that looked at both the academic and financial sides of charter schools (Washington Post). We note some key findings here as examples of issues that charter proponents and skeptics need to address to discover charters’ proper roles in educating the nation’s youth.
A federally commissioned study of 36 middle school charters by the Mathematica Policy Research found that students randomly chosen to attend charter schools performed no better in reading and math than those who didn’t. Starker differences were noted for charters serving lower-income neighborhoods where students did outperform their public school counterparts (Education Week).
The study does not settle any debate on charters, but does point to a more nuanced approach. Jeffrey R. Henig, education professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College said, “This study adds weight to the side that is suggesting that simply talking about charters versus noncharters is a distraction” (Education Week).
The second study, released by the Education and Public Interest Center (EPIC) and the Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU), found that charters receive less money than traditional public schools, but also have fewer obligations. Charter schools receive $9,883 per pupil compared to $12,863 for traditional public schools, the study showed (EPIC Policy). These numbers may be misleading because traditional public schools generally take on more services, like costly special education, transportation, and food services.
Almost 4,000 of the nation’s 90,000 public schools are charters (National Center for Education Statistics). That’s a small percentage now, but there is a strong push to create many more charters very rapidly. For example, for a state to be considered for a share of the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top funds, it needed to commit to charters.
This momentum must be guided by tough questions, standards, transparency, and accountability. We have much to learn from how exemplary charters use high-quality resources and equitable, excellent strategies.