There’s good and there’s bad, and if we’re smart about it we can maximize the former while minimizing the latter.
Fifteen years into the Texas charter school experiment, some charters have brought impressive innovation to public education, saved dropouts and posted enviable test scores. But on other campuses, kids have languished in poorly run classrooms and taxpayer money has been squandered on shady operations.
Despite the wildly varied results, the national charter school movement has gained serious steam over the past year. The forces include strong local political support, backing from philanthropic giants like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ambitious charter school management groups, private investors, fed-up urban parents – and even President Barack Obama.
“We’re not an experiment anymore,” said David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association. “We’re a small but crucial piece of the overall public education system in this state.”
“You’ve got to have quality-control mechanisms in place before you charge forward with greater quantity,” said Nancy Van Meter, a deputy director with AFT in Washington, D.C. “It’s clear to us that the quality-control mechanisms are not in place in many states, including Texas, based not only on the mixed student achievement, but on the questionable financial and business operations that have surfaced.”
As a group, charter schools in Texas are more likely to have low state ratings. Last year, 7 percent of Texas charter schools were rated “unacceptable,” compared with 3 percent of traditional schools. Among schools designed for students at risk of dropping out, 17 percent of charters and 7 percent of traditional schools were rated “unacceptable.”
Despite a flurry of studies, there is no agreement on whether charter schools outperform traditional public schools.
The latest national study, released last week by Mathematica Policy Research, examined 36 charter middle schools in 15 states and found that they did no better or worse on average than traditional schools. The quality of individual charter schools varied widely, with the most successful charters in large urban areas and serving disadvantaged kids. But the study did not find specific strategies that brought success.
I like the way Yglesias puts it:
I think it’s essential that jurisdictions—especially jurisdictions like Washington, DC where the public schools are far below average—allow new charters to start up and successful ones to franchise and expand. But it’s equally essential for charters that persistently underperform to be shut down. You let a 1,000 flowers bloom, and the average flower turns out pretty average. But if you cull the bottom 200 flowers, let the top 100 flowers replicate themselves, and then plant 100 new seeds you’ll be making progress over time.
We may never really know why some charters do better than others, but we sure as heck know which ones are doing better. If we’re aggressive about terminating those schools while helping the successful ones grow, we’ll be moving in the right direction. There are many things about education policy that are hard, but this shouldn’t be one of them.