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August 26, 2009

Charter Schools Gain Support From 64% of U.S. Adults in Survey

By Molly Peterson

Aug. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Public support for charter schools, a component of President Barack Obama’s $100 billion education overhaul, rose to almost two-thirds of Americans this year even as most remained confused about what they are.

Sixty-four percent of U.S. adults said they favor charter schools, up from 51 percent a year ago, Gallup Inc. and Phi Delta Kappa International, a public-school advocacy group in Bloomington, Indiana, found in a poll released today. More than half of the survey’s 1,003 respondents didn’t know charters, which operate under contracts with districts and are exempt from many state and local rules, are public schools.

“Americans are embracing charter schools, even though they’re not sure what charter schools are,” executive director of William Bushaw of Phi Delta, said yesterday on a conference call with reporters. Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed mistakenly thought charter schools charge tuition, while 71 percent didn’t know charters are barred from selectively enrolling students based on ability.

The survey indicates Americans have “signed a permission slip for the president’s education agenda,” Bushaw said. Most respondents, in addition to backing charter schools, favored Obama initiatives such as linking student achievement to teacher pay and expanding early childhood education.

The poll, conducted from June 2 through June 24, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, Bushaw said.

Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are using $100 billion in stimulus funds to save hundreds of thousands of teaching jobs and reshape U.S. education. The money includes $4.35 billion in competitive grants for states that make the most progress in raising academic standards, tracking student gains, boosting teacher quality and improving failing schools.

Grant Guidelines

States that fail to increase the number and quality of charter schools would be at a competitive disadvantage in seeking stimulus grants, under guidelines Duncan and Obama proposed last month. More than 1.4 million U.S. students now attend 4,600 charter schools in 40 states and Washington, D.C., according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group.

States and school districts should set a “very high bar” for approving additional charter schools and hold them accountable for student performance, Duncan said last week.

“When you pick the best of the best, when you give them clear autonomy and clear accountability, we’re seeing great things happen,” Duncan said in an Aug. 21 interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital With Al Hunt.”

Narrow Focus?

The proposed grant guidelines focus too narrowly on charter schools as “the only model of reform for schools worthy of serious attention,” the 3.2 million-member National Education Association said in an Aug. 21 letter to Duncan.

“Despite growing evidence to the contrary, it appears that the administration has decided that charter schools are the only answer to what ails America’s public schools,” NEA, the nation’s largest teacher’s union, said in the letter.

A study of charter schools in 16 states, released June 15 by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found that 46 percent aren’t outperforming traditional public schools in student achievement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Molly Peterson in Washington at mpeterson9@bloomberg.net;

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