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Opinion: Charter Schools Are A Promise, Not a Panacea

It's too easy to see charter schools as a cure-all for today's educational issues. The best charter schools teach valuable lessons, but they also argue for restraint in the claims often made.

The charter school cause is on a roll. The Obama Administration has drawn a line in its behalf, penalizing states that place a limit on charter schools and even proposing that charter school organizations like KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) take over some of the lowest-performing district schools.

This activity raises a key issue: Charter deserve support. But do they really address the larger educational issues?

Here in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie and Education Commissioner Bret Schundler are determined to increase the number of charter schools in cities as the best way to improve urban education. Christie made his point by making a visit to the Robert Treat Academy in Newark his first public stop as governor-elect. His appointment of Schundler, a big charter advocate, and more frequent declaration that he would not cut charter school funding even next year leave no doubts. Support for a big expansion of charters is sure to be in the state’s next application for federal Race to the Top dollars as well.

True, public schools could learn from highly effective charter schools like Robert Treat. Here are the four main lessons from the best charter schools:

  • Children from poor families start school with huge disadvantages in knowledge, vocabulary, and familiarity with books. The best way to make up for this weak start is spend more time teaching poor children. The best charters devote around 50% more time to instruction than the typical public school.
  • Set high expectations for every student and believe that they are all capable of doing well enough to attend a four-year university. That’s the goal that is real for the best district and charter schools.
  • Attract teachers and principals that accept the first two lessons and are willing to devote the extra time and energy required.
  • Ensure that parents are fully committed to their child’s education and take responsibility for support and assistance.

These are not lessons that emerge only from charters. They have been captured by decades of research and performance by public schools and, increasingly, whole districts like Union City and West New York.

But charters offer other lessons as well, and these lessons argue for restraint in the claims and promises made.

First, starting a brand-new enterprise where the founder can hire and fire everyone in the school, set the curriculum, and avoid labor contracts is very different from trying to change the habits and practices of teachers, principals and staff inherited from an operating district school, particularly one that is failing.

Second, because charter schools attract only students whose parents have taken the initiative to find out about the school and apply, it serves a different population than the district schools, even those in its immediate neighborhood. This is called “selection bias” by researchers, but it is very difficult to assign a numerical value of this trait, but it is likely to be large and entirely positive.

Third, there is a limited supply of individuals and organizations that are prepared to take the chances involved in organizing a charter school, in New Jersey or anyplace else. Charter schools have been authorized for 14 years and have been supported by every governor and education commissioner since 1996. After all this time, there are only 68 operating charter schools in the whole state, serving a bit more than 22,000 or l.6% of public school students.

The hope that there are dozens of enterprising and effective organizations and individuals standing by for the chance to apply for a charter is blunted by the relatively slow growth of charter schools and applicants.

Fourth, the best charter schools enroll students who are significantly different than students in the public schools. There are three categories of students who are missing altogether or are found in much smaller proportions than in the district schools:

  • English learners are missing. In Newark, for example, there are almost 3,500 English learners enrolled in the district (8.7% of all students), while the city’s eleven charter schools enroll only 18 out of 4,049 students (0.4 of 1%). In the five charter schools with the best academic results (Discovery, Gray, North Star, Robert Treat, TEAM), only three English learners are found out of 2,051 students.
  • Special education students are in disproportionately short supply. Again in the five highest-performing Newark charters there are but 127 of 2,051 classified students (6.1%) versus the Newark Public Schools average of 18.1%.
  • Boys are missing. They make about 50% of the city districts’ enrollments, as one would expect. In Newark’s “Big Five” charters, boys are but 43.2%.

All these factors help explain why charter school students out-perform their district peers. Simply put, the most challenging pedagogical problems are not concentrated in charter classrooms nearly as much as they are in district classrooms.

Charters deserve support. They are not, however, the panacea suggested by the Christie and Obama administrations.

Gordon MacInnes is a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York and previously was a lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. He served as the assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education and was a member of the New Jersey State Senate and General Assembly. MacInnes also directed the New Jersey Network and was the first director of the Fund for New Jersey. He lives in Morristown.

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