One thing I’ve learned during 20 years in urban education reform is that the forces of the status quo will challenge any new idea, even one that offers tremendous hope to children. So I am not surprised by the recent onslaught of articles from those opposed to expanding excellent educational opportunities for children in the state of New Jersey, and warning of negative consequences if charters are allowed to expand.
What strikes me about those committed to maintaining the status quo is that their arguments do not offer a shred of evidence that public charter schools aren’t serving kids well. That’s probably because 15 of 16 independent studies of charter schools between 2010 and 2013 show just the opposite: Charter schools consistently outperform traditional district schools, especially in urban areas. And as a matter of fact, many public schools in some of New Jersey’s highest need areas have a long history of failing students year after year.
Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes has been studying charters for years and their methodology is considered the gold standard for educational research. They have found that the average charter school student gains weeks of additional learning in reading and math compared to the average traditional school student. They also report that the highest gains are found among low-income black and Hispanic students, as well as students who are learning English.
Here in New Jersey, charter school students are scoring higher on math and language arts literacy tests than students in comparable district schools. As a result, over the past four years, charter schools have had great success closing the achievement gap between white students and black and Hispanic students. The gap closed by 30 percent for charter school students compared with district school students in math and 14 percent in language arts, according to Department of Education reports for 2013.
More than 40,000 New Jersey students attend 87 public charter schools in our state. We could serve many more children if we had the resources to meet the demand for charter schools.
Right now, 20,000 students are waiting to attend a charter school in New Jersey. At Freedom Prep Public Charter School, which I help to lead, we are tripling the number of students we serve in Camden. It’s a constant struggle to get the resources and support to open and expand schools. But we’re fighting every day to get them, because we want every child to have access to a great education.
Why do charter schools work? There is no single formula – and that’s one of the benefits of charters. Charters allow different school models to flourish. Some schools focus on intensive class time. Some focus on arts education. Some take students outside the classroom to combine book studies with real-life experience.
Whatever path we walk, all charter schools are united by a commitment to high standards and student-centered learning. At Freedom Prep, our goal for students is simple and lofty: “Work hard. Go to college. Change the world!” In an environment where kids are energized to learn, they meet the high expectations parents and teachers set for them.
One other thing you’ll get from public charter schools is honesty. We believe parents should have more information about how well their children’s schools are performing. Our school is open to any students who wish to attend, and because students aren’t automatically assigned to our schools, we have to keep proving to parents that we’re offering the best education out there. When we hit our marks, we celebrate it. And when we don’t, we’re upfront about it and explain how we plan to do better.
Unfortunately, anti-charter forces spend more time spreading false rumors about charter schools than trying to fix district schools. Despite what you may have heard, charter schools aren’t private schools. They don’t charge tuition. They don’t require entrance exams. They aren’t religiously affiliated. And they aren’t trying to take money away from district schools. We’re actually trying to share what we know works, so that every school -- district or charter -- can get better.
Charter schools exist to give students a great education and give parents better options for their children. The evidence shows we’re getting the job done. With more resources and support, we can help many more students experience the pride of academic success and get on the path to a better life.