Sacramento Bee, September 9, 2004

OP-ED: Charters Remain Best Hope for Public Education


Here's an idea. Get a group of teachers together who are looking to practice their profession free from most regulations that burden our public schools. Pair them with parents searching for a better education for their kids. Inject a little bit of involvement from the community, and have all of them hammer out a compact that will guide their work. Pay for the new school by sending tax dollars directly to the campus, skipping the state, county, and local bureaucracies. Finally, judge the result against statewide standards laying out what Californians expect their kids to learn in school.

Those who follow education reform in California, and America, know that this is not a new idea. It is the charter school, a public school formed by teachers and parents, run according to a contract spelling out their mission, freed of most state mandates, and held accountable to state standards.

Charter schools are the best hope for the future of public education because they provide an outlet for great teachers, choice for parents, and opportunity for students who might otherwise be stuck in under-performing schools. They are innovation driven from the ground up, not the top down. They are the re-democratization of the public school, returning education to its roots in the family and the community, where schools that abuse their charter or fail to perform can be shut down or will simply wither away as parents leave them for other options.

It sounds so sensible. Yet charter schools, a full decade after their introduction in California, remain controversial. Last month, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's largest teachers union, leaked to The New York Times a federal analysis that purported to show charter schools' performance lagging behind their more traditional peers.

That conclusion was quickly debunked, but not until it was ensured one day of national hype thanks to its placement in The Times. Among other things, the numbers failed to take into account the different backgrounds of the students who attend traditional versus charter schools or to examine whether charter school students were showing gains over time. The study provided a crude snapshot of a few schools in one grade on one test.

Even with those shortcomings, however, that analysis still showed the charter schools in California were doing as well or better than their traditional counterparts. Now new numbers released by the state are pointing to even greater success.

According to the California Charter Schools Association, the latest numbers from the Academic Performance Index—the official measure of how well schools are progressing toward state goals—show that 64.4 percent of charter schools achieved gains from 2003 to 2004, compared to 61.1 percent of non-charter schools. Charter schools, meanwhile, increased their scores on the index by an average of 12.9 points, compared to 7.3 points for non-charter schools.

The improvement was most dramatic in San Diego, where charter school gains were three times greater than their traditional counterparts, and in Oakland, where charters with at least two years of scores had an average increase that was nearly five times the growth in regular district schools. In San Diego, three of the four public high schools showing the most gains were charters.

These numbers are crucial because they show not just how well schools are doing, but how much they are improving from where they started, which in the case of charter schools, can often be near the bottom.

Critics sometimes say that the superior performance of charter schools is because the programs cherry-pick the best students from regular schools. But there is no evidence that this is the case, and intuitively, the argument doesn't make much sense. Parents whose children are already doing well in school are unlikely to move them to a new and unproven program. Typically, the opposite is true: The students charter schools get are those who are struggling in a more traditional environment.

"They often come in well behind their peers and need to catch up," said Caprice Young, chief executive officer of the charter school association.

California charter schools are increasingly serving inner-city and minority children. In the past two years, the number of charters with at least 70 percent of their students classified as poor has doubled, from 54 to 115—and that's just those schools that have qualified for state assistance with their facilities.

But Young said that, even if their performance growth rates are surpassing traditional schools, charter schools are still looking to improve by getting better training and sharing their successes through improved collaboration. It appears that as the concentration of charter schools in a community grows, performance improves as they feed off each other.

"Nobody is satisfied," she said.

Both supporters and critics of charter schools, though, should remember this paradox: If the concept is truly working, the performance of students in charters should never race too far ahead of those in traditional campuses. The whole point of charter schools, after all, is to provide the kind of choice and competition that will make all schools better, both those that declare their independence and those that do not.

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