Charter-ing the Race

There seems to be little question about it.  Charter schools are front and center when it comes to the federal government’s new approach to school improvement and student achievement.  EdSec Arne Duncan has been promoting charters as a core part of successful Race to the Top grants and as necessary components to comprehensive district turnarounds.  Duncan can even point to his use of the charter tool in Chicago as the justification for his new push.

The Gates Foundation has announced its plans to go in and do a “deep dive” in four school districts across the nation, focusing $125 million per district on improved professional development.  On the short list for the final four, an unnamed charter school district in the Los Angeles area.  Only the village idiot doesn’t realize that Green Dot is the intended target for these funds.
We’ve seen greater interest and appreciation for what KIPP has done, due in large part to Jay Mathews’ recent book on that charter system.  And the number of ED employees with ties to the NewSchool Venture Fund, one of the top thinkers on the effective development of high-quality charter schools (and part of New Leaders for New Schools’ model for teacher incentives under their TIF-funded EPIC program) continues to grow by the day.
So for those who thought charters may take a back seat under a new Democratic administration, they have been sadly mistaken.  The economic stimulus package called for states to raise their charter caps.  Other states are being pushed to actually maximize their current laws (like my home state of Virginia, which has a decent charter law, but just doesn’t allow any charters to actually get started under it, thus failing to live up to the promise).  And others still are being asked to establish flexible, growth-oriented charter laws that demonstrate the value-add charters can play to a school district on the rise or a school district in need of improvement.
But who is doing it well?  A decade ago, charters were tagged with a reputation of low quality and low results.  We had images of individuals running schools out of their homes and their basements, trying to take advantage of available funding or looking to thrust a particular political or religious point of view on a select group of students.  Many still subscribe to that stereotype, despite the hard work undertaken by groups like NACSA to ensure that states have strong charter establishment and accountability laws and by organizations like the Center for Education Reform for continually providing new data on how well our charter systems are doing.
CER actually has a new report out, this one called Race to the Top for Charter Schools: Which States Have What It Takes to Win, Rankings and Scorecard 2009.  In the study, CER provides some interesting data, grading our states on issues such as the number of charter operators, number of schools allowed, operations, and equity.  We see that three states earn As from CER — the District of Columbia, Minnesota, and California.  Four states earn Fs — Kansas, Virginia, Iowa, and Mississippi.  D seems to be the most popular grade when it comes to charter scores.
When you couple this data with recent CER data on charter school achievement and the costs involved (showing that charters are putting up equal or better performance when compared to their traditional public school peers for nearly half the per-pupil dollars), it gives you a strong sense for why Duncan and company are emphasizing the opportunity available under charters … and how much work we really have to do before we effectively integrate charters into the public school network.
Most states want to get their Race to the Top dollars and the chances that come with it.  In the process, hopefully they will recognize that good, effective charter networks are designed to supplement, not supplant, our traditional public school systems.  They aren’t the magic bullet for struggling schools, but they sure are a useful tool.  And that like most in school improvement, charters only work when we focus on quality, proven research, assessment, and accountability.

162 thoughts on “Charter-ing the Race

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