ARRA: Rise of the Charters

Can one make lasting improvement working solely within the confines of the status quo?  That seems to be the question the US Department of Education, particularly EdSec Arne Duncan, is asking as additional details on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and our federal education policy come into crisper focus.

In recent weeks, the education community has “discovered” that ARRA included language requiring states to boost their charter school cap, essentially requiring the expansion of charter offerings if states want access to all of the new economic stimulus money.  Couple the details of ARRA with recent speeches by Duncan and hires of those with backgrounds that include organizations such as the NewSchool Venture Fund, and we are starting to see that the limits of the status quo simply will not hold.
Today, the EdSec went all in on the topic.  Addressing the media on how to turnaround our lowest performing schools, Duncan cited the value of “real autonomy for charters combined with a rigorous authorization process and high performance standards.”  Among the stats used by ED this afternoon:
* 10 states currently do not have laws allowing charter schools;
* 26 states put artificial caps on the number of public charter schools (with President Obama calling on states to lift those caps);
* The Maine state legislature is debating a bill to establish a pilot program for its first charter schools (though this afternoon’s headlines looked like the legislature would reject the proposal and risk losing its education stimulus dollars); and
* Tennessee refuses to lift its charter enrollment restrictions while Indiana is considering a moratorium on new charter schools.
And that status quo question?  Duncan seemed to answer that this afternoon as well.  “I am advocating for using whatever models work for students, and particularly where improvements have stagnated for years,” Duncan said.  “We cannot continue to do that same thing and expect different results.  We cannot let another generation of children be deprived of their civil right to a quality education.”
While one has to question Duncan’s definition of insanity to be used as a justification for expanding our charter laws, he does have a point.  And all this talk is bound to generate a great of attention, particularly with the positive press generated by charters like KIPP and the Gates Foundation’s likely intention to provide a $125 million “deep dive” into a “network of charter schools” in the Los Angeles area (can we all say Green Dot?).  The real challenge, then, for Duncan, Obama, Gates, and others is to ensure that this is not an either-or situation.
In the early days of the charter debate, opponents of public charter schools fought the good fight, accusing school districts of looking to replace traditional public schools with these new charters.  Over time, we have witnessed that the best of our charter schools are in communities where they complement the traditional publics.  Strong charters, with strong accountability, offer greater opportunity.  They can raise quality.  They increase choice.  And, if held to high standards, they contribute to student achievement gains and can be a useful lever in turning around our lowest performing school districts.  They can also give families and students a choice in communities where previous choice was between one failing school and another.
Ultimately, the EdSec is right in seeking to include charter schools in our Race to the Top funds.  if we are to turn around persistently underperforming schools, we need to do something different.  We can’t simply pump more dollars into historically troubled schools and expect that student achievement will improve.  After all, we’ve tried that approach for decades now.  How has it worked so far?
But we also must recognize that charters are not the magical elixir that will aid any district in need.  We can point to plenty of school districts with liberal charter policies but poor student achievement (just look at our nation’s capital).  Charters work when they take a firm line with regard to structure, expectations, and accountability.  Such a line isn’t for everyone.  Too often, we make compromises, offering charter schools destined for many of the same failings their traditional publics are suffering through.  If the Race to the Top is going to work, we need new ideas and new approaches.  But we also need the research and accountability behind them to ensure success.  Otherwise, we will keep throwing good money after bad, doing more of the same and expecting a different outcome.  With the stakes as high as they are, that, my friends, really is insanity.
 
   
 

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