2010-02-12 / Letters

A Charter For Success

Dear Editor,

I felt your column, “The Rockaway Beat,” was unfairly heavy-handed in its attack on charter schools. President Barack Obama swept into office last year on a promise to modernize and reform the nation’s educational system.

He and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, have undertaken this task in earnest, with Duncan starting the Race to the Top program. The Race to the Top, with the incentive of $4 billion in federal funds, encourages states to allow for the creation of more charter schools.

Charters, which are not governed by the same rules as regular public schools, are an innovative albeit controversial solution to the problems that plague the country’s classrooms. They largely operate in chronically underserved minority communities. Their philosophy lies in accountability, choice, and autonomy. They are institutions that are privately run, receive public money, and enjoy freedom from the onerous contractual restrictions that constrain their publicly-run counterparts. Charters can sack underperforming staff and link student achievement to teacher pay. With this freedom comes responsibility—the school can be shuttered if it fails to meet the goals laid out in its ‘charter.’ Finally, all those who teach at and attend these institutions are there by choice.

This nimbleness and the incipient accountability mechanism that accompanies it make charter schools an indispensable component of educational reform.

According to a new study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) about New York City’s charter schools “a student who attends a charter high school is about 7 percent more likely to earn a Regents diploma by age 20 for each year he spends in that school” compared to his friends in regular public school. NBER also concluded that “on average, [minority students] who attended a charter school for all grades kindergarten through eight would close about 86 percent of the [black-white achievement gap] in math and 66 percent of the achievement gap in English,” a far better showing than pupils enrolled in regular public schools.

However, charters are not without their faults. They have been dogged by allegations of siphoning off public funds for private use, union-busting, selectivity (known as creaming) in their admissions process, and misrepresenting their achievements. Indeed, an article published on May 19, 2009 on InsideSchools.org, titled “Most Vulnerable Students Shut out of Charter Schools,” reported that “an analysis of student data involving some of the most challenging students to educate, students who are homeless, special education students, and English Language Learners (ELL), shows that charter schools don’t serve or enroll the [same number of these students] as local public schools.” These institutions have a profit motive and just like a heath-care company rejects patients with pre-existing conditions, the charter schools weed out those with disabilities and students who come from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds. While these schools are forprofit they are receiving taxpayer support, which has generated much criticism.

Another point of contention lies in the charters’ unwillingness to allow their employees to unionize. As someone whose family has deep roots in the labor movement and as a person who recognizes the union’s historic role as a guarantor of shared prosperity, I find this deplorable. Some work rules that the teachers’ union imposes on the school system are problematic, but staff at charter schools should still be permitted to organize.

At the same time, national studies have found that student performance at charter schools is roughly equivalent to those pupils at traditional public schools. Perhaps, this is because of the overwhelming minority demographic of these institutions, but nonetheless the data undercuts proponents of charters.

For all these reasons I can offer only a lukewarm “ endorsement of the charter schools. Some fresh ideas have emanated from them and they have shown potential for innovation. However, the profit motive in education is permanently suspect and the quirks in the charter school model must be worked out. I think we should use the charters as a lab, take advantage of their more lax regulations to see what teaching methods work and which don’t. Charter schools are one piece of educational reform that may help students compete in the global economy. They are one part of what we must do to create a world-class educational system for a Brave New World.

JOSEPH O’MALLEY

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