“Charter”-ing the Course

We all know that huge sums of federal dollars will soon be flowing into states and school districts throughout the nation.  Courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, billions upon billions of dollars will move into the field in the next month or so, or so says EdSec Arne Duncan and the officials holding the purse strings.

Along the way, we’ve also heard the EdSec speak of the value and virtues of charter schools.  He used the effectively in Chicago, and has said (as has the President) that charters are a part of the fabric of our 21st century public schools.
Just yesterday, Eduflack was asked an interesting question.  Of all of the dollars moving to schools in need through the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund and boosts in Title I and IDEA funds, how much of that, if any, can be spent on charter schools?  In cities like Washington, DC, cities that are facing significant cuts to charter schools that have been proven effective in boosting student achievement, can these new dollars be used to prevent detrimental cuts to successful charters?
This is one of those questions that I still don’t have a perfect answer to.  After reviewing the most recent guidance from ED on the stimulus funds, listening in on conference calls with ED officials, and generally talking the talk, the answer, at least in terms of the letter of the law, still isn’t clear.  The intent, though, is crystal.  These funds are designed to prevent cuts from public education, particularly cuts that can have a negative impact on student achievement and school performance.  The money is intended to guarantee that successful reforms and school improvements move forward, and no ground is lost to ensure that every child receives a high-quality education.  Doesn’t that include charters?
Like it or not, charter schools are part of that public education patchwork.  In city after city, they are supplementing current education offerings.  Yes, in other cities they have supplanted failing schools, as families turn to new models to provide their children a new chance and a new opportunity.  And charter schools aren’t going anywhere.  If anything, they have gained in terms of both acceptance and popularity, particularly in communities with struggling schools and at-risk students.
Eduflack has previously reported on the research demonstrating how charter schools are able to deliver comparable student achievement results to their traditional public school colleagues, while doing so at roughly half the per-student-dollar cost.  The true success of charter schools has, is, and always will be measured based on student performance.  How do they stand up against traditional public schools?  How do they start demonstrating stronger-than-average gains?  How do we hold states, school districts, and school operators accountable for how they spend their money and for the quality of the instruction they provide?  All are measures that will decide whether charters are a title wave or a ripple in the education reform ocean.
To help answer some of those questions, the Center for Education Reform just announced their 2009 Accountability Report on Charter Schools.  Chock full of both facts and advocacy, the CER report provides an interesting glimpse into the quality of state charter laws and the funding charters are receiving in those states.  The full report can be found at edreform.com/accountability/.    
And what do we see?  Six states earn an A when it comes to its state charter laws.  Six states also receive a D or F when it comes to charter laws (including Eduflack’s home state of Virginia).  And 10 states still have no charter laws at all.  On average, charters are funded at about 65 percent the rate of traditional public schools, with only Missouri coming close to near-equal funding.  (I must say, the state-by-state map is particularly useful.)
CER’s study doesn’t answer our questions about how charters are going to fit into the new world order of ARRA funding, but it does provide some important information on how charters fit into the landscape.  It speaks to the need for strong state charter laws, tough accountability provisions, strong data collection efforts, and adequate levels of funding.  With those pieces, charters can deliver the results so many are seeking from our schools, particularly those in the inner city.
If the economic stimulus money is indeed intended to invest in those efforts that improve school quality and boost student achievement, charter schools really can’t be ignored.  And CER provides an initial roadmap to help State Education Agencies about how to do it with an eye on effectiveness, impact, and results.  As we look to improve public education in the United States, can we really afford not to cast a gaze at effective charters that are demonstrating and documenting real results?  
UPDATE: For those seeking additional information on how charter schools are or can be affected by the economic stimulus package, check out the resources that the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools have assembled — http://www.publiccharters.org/node/619  

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