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Why I was wrong about charter schools

In 1989, I had the privilege of helping the Kentucky legislature design the most courageous and comprehensive education reform act in America.

Although I served as Maryland’s state superintendent of schools for 12 years and as superintendent of the Philadelphia School District for six years, the results Kentuckians have achieved since passing and sustaining KERA are my most fulfilling professional accomplishment.

Kentucky’s children have made more progress than those of any other state in the nation. The quality of life for hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians is better because you carefully crafted legislation that resulted in schools that work for their communities, families and children. You not only enacted KERA but for 27 years, with both Democratic and Republican leadership putting children first, you have sustained the essential elements of KERA. That sort of stable bipartisan leadership is sadly rare. You have kept your eye on what’s important, the children, which has led to Kentucky’s track record of success.

Today, I am concerned that House Bill 520 will begin to unravel that success. I speak from experience. In the mid-90s, as Philadelphia’s Superintendent of Schools, I recommended the approval of more than 30 charter schools because I thought it would improve educational opportunity for our 215,000 students. The last 20 years make it clear that I was wrong.

Those who are proposing legislation to introduce and build charter schools are as committed to educational improvement as I was. But, like me, they are wrong. You stand on the brink of embracing a strategy with a track record that is mixed at best and one that has some serious unintended consequences.

Mixed academic results: Charters, on the whole, do not result in significant improvement in student performance. It’s mixed at best. In some evaluations, charter schools overall actually underperform regular public schools.

Funding and unequal opportunity: Charter funding negatively affects regular public schools. Charter advocates rely on the premise that as money flows from a regular school to a charter school, the costs of the regular school go down proportionately.

Sounds good; it’s just not true. Costs in schools sending students to charters cannot shift as fast as students and revenue leave. The costs for the principal, heating, lights, building debt and many other things continue. Thus, the remaining children face the prospect of larger class sizes, cuts to core academic programming as well as music, physical education and art. Opportunity for charter school students is, in part, funded by the loss of opportunity for the remaining students without a commensurate improvement in performance by charter school students.

According to Moody’s Investors Service, charter schools pose the greatest credit challenge to school districts in economically weak urban areas and may even affect their credit ratings. Further, the proposed legislation assumes all students cost the same to educate. Again, not true. It costs more to provide a quality education to some, such as those with severe disabilities, who are rarely served by charter schools, leaving traditional schools to disproportionately bear this cost.

States with “stronger” charter laws are not doing better: Charter advocates say “strong” charter laws are required. Pennsylvania’s law is one that is characterized as strong. Yet, its charter growth is contributing significantly to a funding crisis that includes draconian cuts to teachers, nurses, arts, music and counselors in Philadelphia.

Charters do not serve students with the greatest challenges: Charters will be quick to point out they enroll high percentages of low-income students. Some do. However, the district-wide charter lottery inherently skims. Every student chosen has someone (parent, pastor, friend) who encouraged and is advocating for her/him to apply and succeed. That fact by itself creates a select pool of students and a corollary depletion of those students in non-charter schools. That’s bad policy if your goal is the success of all students.

Charters create an incoherent system: The proposed law creates a separate entity to decide when a new school is authorized. By definition, that creates incoherence and undermines another of the hallmarks of KERA … equity. Kentucky’s constitution calls for the state to provide a thorough and efficient system of education. When a charter school decides, for whatever reason, a student is unsuitable for its program, the local school system has the responsibility to educate that child.

Charters are not more innovative: It is often argued that traditional schools can learn from innovative practices of charter schools. There are two problems with the assertion. It is rare, perhaps even non-existent, where a system is set in motion to transfer knowledge and practice. In addition, there are as many or more innovations in traditional public schools as in charters in Kentucky and beyond. If the interest is learning from best practices, one does not need to set up a new more expensive system that undermines equity.

Charters are not substitutes for broader proven reforms: In fact, chartering is not an education reform. It’s merely a change in governance. A charter law doesn’t deal with the hard and often costly slog of real reform. We know from research and experience what works to build schools with thriving students. I urge you to keep your eye on that prize:

  • High standards
  • Quality teachers
  • Prekindergarten for 3-year-olds
  • Lower class sizes through the third grade
  • Attacking concentrated poverty through such innovations as Family Resource and Youth Service Centers

Let’s do what we know works. Let’s keep Kentucky moving up in the ranks of states that provide an excellent education for all students.

 

Credit: courier-journal, part of the USA Today Network

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