The charter school alternative

Charter schools, with 1.4 million students, are gaining momentum. Are small, independent public schools the future?

With more than 1.4 million students attending charter schools and 426 new charters opening this school year, the charter movement is gaining momentum. Are small, independent schools the future of publicly financed education?

What is a charter school?

It’s an independently run public school that’s been freed of the usual school district rules. Some charters are started with an assist from local school districts, but most are launched by independent groups seeking to challenge the local education bureaucracy with new ideas and curricula. Charter schools claim higher standards—and ambitions—than ordinary public schools, and aren’t bound by union rules on teacher tenure, assignments, and hours. There are currently 4,600 charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia, educating about 3 percent of public school students in the U.S.

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What’s the point?

To improve schooling—especially for students in low-income, low-performing school districts. The quality of U.S. public education has been a source of growing concern in recent decades. Internationally, U.S. students rank 25th in math proficiency and 15th in reading. In some major American cities, including Washington, D.C., whole school districts are failing. By breaking out of the standard school mold, and providing real competition, supporters hope to lead a revolution in school quality.

How effective are charter schools?

Some produce students with higher test scores than regular public schools, and some do not; it’s hard to draw any blanket conclusion, and there is much disagreement about how to compare public and charter school students. Critics complain that charter schools cherry-pick the most promising students; in addition, parents who choose charter schools are by definition committed to their kids’ education, giving these students another big edge. So are better test scores at some charter schools proof of better schooling, or simply a reflection of the fact that students arrive with more motivation and parental support? Charter school advocates, though, point out that 60 percent of charter students are minorities, most are poor, and many are refugees from dysfunctional public schools. Perhaps that’s why a 2006 Department of Education report actually found charter students performing, on average, slightly below those in regular public schools.

So why bother?

Because some charter schools truly do excel. Students at KIPP schools (see below), for instance, generally achieve far superior test scores. Tens of thousands of families are on waiting lists to get their children into charter schools, an expression of popular demand that supporters contend speaks for itself. What’s more, charters have attracted a powerful following despite the fact that, on average, charters receive only 78 percent of the funding that traditional public schools receive. “Our students want to be here, and we have institutionalized the notion of high expectations,” said Ernie Harper, acting school leader of Freedom Academy Charter School in Camden, N.J.

Isn’t that true of all charter schools?

Yes, but success requires extraordinary commitment from administrators, teachers, parents, and students. At the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York, the school day is 10 hours long, classes are held on Saturdays, and the school year extends into August. After New York’s public housing authority transferred Altheo Serrao and her three children from Manhattan to a project on Staten Island, she and the children began commuting two hours each way so they could continue at the Children’s Zone. “This is not something I’m willing to give up,” Serrao said. At her local public school, she said, the children are “expected to fail.”

Do some charter schools have problems?

Yes—the lack of oversight can lead to trouble. A charter school in Philadelphia is under investigation because the school’s operator hired family members and routinely made school purchases from companies he owned. Another Philadelphia charter school is under investigation for its high administration expenses, including millions of dollars paid in rent, management fees, and salaries to a single for-profit company. Nationwide, more than 12 percent of charters opened since 1992 have failed, many because of improprieties. But charter school advocates, eager to break up the public school monopoly, oppose more regulation, and a high-stakes battle is now under way between pro-charter reformers and teachers’ unions and public school administrators. The 3.2 million­–member National Education Association, the largest union in the nation, says that reformers have a conservative political agenda to drain public schools of funds. Reformers counter that the unions are more interested in easy workloads, permanent jobs, and hefty pensions than in making sure children are educated.

Which side is President Obama on?

Apparently, both. As a Democrat, the president is generally allied with unions, which have generally been opposed to charters. But Obama’s relationship with the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers is not especially warm. AFT members booed him at a 2007 union event when he advocated merit pay for teachers, and neither the AFT nor the NEA endorsed Obama in the Democratic primary campaign. Once in office, Obama chose a charter school in Washington as the site of his first presidential visit to a school. On the other hand, his administration recently curtailed funding for a federal charter program in Washington, D.C., schools, a move that outraged charter school supporters. While saying he supports the “competition” charter schools provide, Obama has also said, “Charter schools aren’t the only answer.” But for poor parents with children trapped in dysfunctional schools, they might be the only answer available now.

A real success story

Committed to the idea that “demography does not define destiny,” the Knowledge Is Power Program is a network of 66 mostly charter schools located in minority, low-income neighborhoods in 19 states and the District of Columbia. School begins at 7:30 a.m. and continues until 5 p.m., with tutoring provided in the evenings. Saturday morning classes are common, and students commit to three weeks of summer school. If that seems out of the ordinary, so are the results that KIPP schools achieve. So far, more than 80 percent of KIPP alumni have gone on to college, a matriculation rate bearing no resemblance to that of most public schools with student populations similar to KIPP’s, which is 90 percent African-American or Latino. Despite salaries 15 percent to 20 percent higher than district averages, teacher turnover is high at KIPP, in part because administrators fire teachers who fail to achieve results. “At KIPP, there is no blaming ‘downtown,’” one school director said. “There is no blaming ‘the system.’”

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