Category: charter schools

Charters Schools Are a Laboratory for Innovation Within Public Education

By Kathryn Hickok

This is National Charter Schools Week. Did you know almost half of Washington, D.C.’s public school children attend tuition-free charter schools? In fact, our nation’s capital now has 120 charters, run by 66 nonprofit organizations.

President Bill Clinton signed the legislation authorizing D.C.’s charter schools more than twenty years ago. Since then, D.C. charter school students have made significant academic gains. A 2015 study on urban charter schools by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that D.C. charter students are learning the equivalent of 96 more days in math and 70 more days in reading than their peers in traditional public schools.

David Osborne, director of the project Reinventing America’s Schools at the Progressive Policy Institute, has called D.C. “the nation’s most interesting laboratory” for public education. In an article for U.S. News and World Report, Osborne compares the traditional public school system with a Model T trying to compete on a racetrack with 21st century cars. “…[F]or those with greater needs,” he writes, “schools need innovative designs and extraordinary commitment from their staffs.”

Charter schools’ entrepreneurial governance model allows them to innovate, adapt, and specialize to meet the particular needs of students. Their success in educating children who face the greatest challenges to academic achievement is fueling an even greater demand for the kind of choice in education that charter schools have come to represent.

Kathryn Hickok is Executive Vice President at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Freedom in Film: Won’t Back Down (2012)

With students everywhere heading to class, we hope you enjoy Part 3 of Cascade’s “virtual” back-to-school School Choice Film Fest.

Social problem films are not generally “feel-good” movies, in the sense that viewers feel comfortable with their feet up, eating popcorn, laughing with the heroes, and hoping for happily ever after. Won’t Back Down (2012) is a bit different. The film makes clear the near-impossibility of a desperate single mother getting her small daughter out of the worst public school in town; but it maintains a buoyant, upbeat vibe.

Here is what Cascade’s Steve Buckstein said about Won’t Back Down when it opened in theaters:

It’s not often that a Hollywood movie both entertains and helps parents learn about another option to improve their children’s education. The film Won’t Back Down…does both.

Inspired by actual events, it’s the story of a third-grade student trapped in a failing public school. Unable to afford a private education, her mother, played by actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, learns about parent trigger laws, now the reality in seven states, which allow parents to take control of such schools and institute improvements.

Gyllenhaal enlists the help of a dedicated teacher in her daughter’s school, played by actress Viola Davis, to jump through the myriad of hoops put in their way. Together, they learn how to fight not only the bureaucracy, but the powerful teachers union, personified by actress Holly Hunter.

The film explores the complex relationships among good teachers, bad teachers, and a union whose leader once famously said he’d represent the interests of schoolchildren when they started paying union dues. Poor parents who want the best for their children are given a glimpse of the educational choices that those with political power are able to make.

Surprisingly, the good guys aren’t all good, and the bad guys aren’t all bad, in this multi-layered drama….

Won’t Back Down was criticized by some as “anti-union” or even “anti-teacher.” But it is actually a relatively gentle take on union/parent/teacher conflicts. The film takes extra care to present the concerns and fears of lifelong public school teachers and union members with sympathy and understanding. The characters are lovable, and the drama is human.

The takeaway can be summed up by the school board member who, casting the decisive vote, says….Well, you’ll have to see the movie to find out.

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Freedom in Film: Waiting for “Superman” (2010)

With students everywhere heading to class, we hope you enjoy Part 2 of Cascade’s “virtual” back-to-school School Choice Film Fest.

The 2010 documentary film Waiting for “Superman” ignited new interest in the desperate desire of low-income parents to get their kids out of failing, one-size-fits-all public schools into better-performing charter schools. The five children poignantly profiled in the film faced barriers to their dreams in the form of too few charter school seats and a lottery acceptance process that made their futures dependent on a roll of the dice.

Charter schools have become a vital education option for thousands of students throughout the U.S. Moviegoers previously unfamiliar with charter schools (public schools with more freedom to be innovative than traditional district public schools) began to understand why parents―especially lower-income parents―want their kids so much to have a chance to attend charters.

Demand for charter schools far outstrips available seats, as Cascade’s 2011 study of Oregon charter school waiting lists found. Opening more charter schools is an important piece of the education reform puzzle. However, immediate, viable, successful alternatives to failing public schools have existed, often right in parents’ own neighborhoods, for decades. In much of the U.S., those options pre-date the American public school system itself.

Private and parochial schools have been a lifeline for low-income kids for generations, and today’s school choice movement seeks to maximize parents’ options for choosing the public, private, online, public charter, or home school that is the best fit for their children. Dozens of states and the District of Columbia have pioneered voucher programs, education tax credit laws, and Education Savings Accounts for parents. Private charity also plays a major role in helping children in need get a hand up early in life.

Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs, may be the most flexible way for states to help children learn in the ways that are best for them. ESAs are not a college savings plan. Rather, if families decide the public schools to which their children are assigned are not meeting their needs, they can leave those schools and instead receive money from the state to pay for approved alternative education options and expenses. Parents can spend the funds on private school tuition, individual courses at public schools, tutoring, online learning, textbooks, educational therapies, and other education-related services and products. They can use a combination of these services based on what they think would best meet their child’s learning needs.

Reforming our public education system is necessary, but low-income kids can’t wait for Superman. When the 2017 Oregon legislative session begins in January, ask your state legislators to empower Oregon children to succeed in whatever education setting works for them by supporting an Education Savings Account law.

And if you haven’t seen it yet, this is a great week to watch Waiting for “Superman.”

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New Orleans' Miracle School District

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated the southeastern United States, displacing more than 372,000 school-aged children. Today, New Orleans’ school population has returned to more than two-thirds its pre-storm level, but a lot has changed for the better in the public school district.

Before Katrina, a Louisiana state legislator called New Orleans “one of the worst-run public school systems in America.” Almost two-thirds of students attended a “failing school.” After Katrina, the state legislature transferred more than 100 low-performing Orleans Parish schools to the Recovery School District. Now, the district has 57 charter schools operating under nonprofit charter management organizations.

According to The Washington Examiner, barely more than half of New Orleans public school students graduated before Katrina. Today, almost all New Orleans students attend charter schools. In the 2013-14 school year, three out of four students graduated on time, and fewer than seven percent attend a “failing school.”

This amazing turnaround is due to the hard work of teachers, administrators, local and state leaders, and parents who rebuilt New Orleans’ public school system from the ground-up, with the vision and determination to create “an all-choice school district with high-quality schools.” The unprecedented success of New Orleans’ Recovery School District serves as a model for education reform efforts across the country. Parental choice, flexibility for educators, and innovation in management really can achieve the impossible.


This article was originally published August 26, 2015.

 

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Washington, D.C. Charters Called a Laboratory for Innovation in Public Education

Did you know that almost half of Washington, D.C.’s public school children attend charter schools? In fact, our nation’s capital now has 115 charters, run by 62 nonprofit organizations.

President Bill Clinton signed the legislation authorizing D.C.’s charter schools twenty years ago this spring. Since then, D.C. charter school students have made significant academic gains. A recent study on urban charter schools by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that D.C. charter students are learning the equivalent of 96 more days in math and 70 more days in reading than their peers in traditional public schools.

David Osborne, director of the project Reinventing America’s Schools at the Progressive Policy Institute, has called D.C. “the nation’s most interesting laboratory” for public education. In an article for U.S. News and World Report, Osborne compares the traditional public school system with a Model T trying to compete on a racetrack with 21st century cars. “…[F]or those with greater needs,” he writes, “schools need innovative designs and extraordinary commitment from theirs staffs.”

Charter schools’ entrepreneurial governance model allows them to innovate, adapt, and specialize to meet the particular needs of students. Their successes in educating children who face the greatest challenges to academic achievement is fueling an even greater demand for the kind of choice in education that charter schools have come to represent.

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New Orleans’ Miracle School District

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated the southeastern United States, displacing more than 372,000 school-aged children. Today, New Orleans’ school population has returned to more than two-thirds its pre-storm level, but a lot has changed for the better in the public school district.

Before Katrina, a Louisiana state legislator called New Orleans “one of the worst-run public school systems in America.” Almost two-thirds of students attended a “failing school.” After Katrina, the state legislature transferred more than 100 low-performing Orleans Parish schools to the Recovery School District. Now, the district has 57 charter schools operating under nonprofit charter management organizations.

According to The Washington Examiner, barely more than half of New Orleans public school students graduated before Katrina. Today, almost all New Orleans students attend charter schools. In the 2013-14 school year, three out of four students graduated on time, and fewer than seven percent attend a “failing school.”

This amazing turnaround is due to the hard work of teachers, administrators, local and state leaders, and parents who rebuilt New Orleans’ public school system from the ground-up, with the vision and determination to create “an all-choice school district with high-quality schools.” The unprecedented success of New Orleans’ Recovery School District serves as a model for education reform efforts across the country. Parental choice, flexibility for educators, and innovation in management really can achieve the impossible.

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New York Times Calls Catholic Schools “A Lifeline for Minorities”

The New York Times recently published a feature story about the closure of inner-city Catholic schools, as the Archdiocese of New York consolidates the school system to shore up its finances (“A Lifeline for Minorities, Catholic Schools Retrench,” June 20). Among the 26 urban schools to close this year is Blessed Sacrament in the Bronx, once attended by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

“The worst thing is, these kids could lose their faith in the adults around them,” [Justice Sotomayor] said in an interview inside her old fifth-grade classroom. “Children need to feel secure. This makes it worse. These kids are going to carry this trauma with them for the rest of their lives.”

Justice Sotomayor’s emotions are shared by a generation of accomplished Latino and black professionals and public servants who went from humble roots to successful careers thanks to Catholic schools. But they fear that a springboard that has helped numerous poor and working-class minority students achieve rewarding lives is eroding as Catholic schools close their doors in the face of extraordinary financial challenges and demographic shifts….

“The Catholic schools have been a pipeline to opportunity for generations,” said Justice Sotomayor….“It gave people like me the chance to be successful. It provided me…with an incredible environment of security. Not every school provides that.”

It is no secret that a substantial hurdle faced by independent private schools across the country is raising the money to operate without charging tuition that could not possibly be paid by the families they serve. Generous voluntary, private support plays a large role in sustaining faith-based private schools. In many cities a majority of students in some schools do not even belong to the institutions’ faith; they and their parents simply crave the good education they offer. But as the situation in urban New York illustrates, modest tuition plus charitable giving are not enough to keep schools open in neighborhoods that need them most.

New York spends $19,000 in taxpayer money per student in the public school system. If children are failed by public schools that do not successfully educate them (as happens to many kids), parents have no “money back guarantee.” If parents want to choose a private school to make up for the deficiencies of the public system, they must pay out of their own pockets. If parents could control only a few thousand dollars of what the public system already spends on their child, they could afford tuition at most private schools.

Today, the school choice movement recognizes the outstanding job faith-based and other independent private schools do to provide a quality education to children who are routinely failed by public schools, especially in low-income communities. “School choice” legislation empowers parents like those in the Times article to choose whatever school serves their children best through options like education tax credits, educational savings accounts, and public scholarships (vouchers).

These options allow parents to control a small portion of the education dollars that would be spent on their child in public schools. If the goal of public education is to educate the public, it shouldn’t matter where the learning takes place. What matters is that every child learns.

As of 2012, 32 publicly funded school choice programs exist in 16 states and the District of Columbia, serving close to 250,000 children. Oregon does not have such a program yet, but the state has made incremental gains in increasing parental choice within the public system. Oregon has about 115 charter schools (including online options that are especially helpful to rural and special-needs students) and an inter-district transfer law that allows students to enroll in public schools outside their district of residence.

Educating children who are most in need has been a priority of Catholic and other private schools since a New York widow named Elizabeth Ann Seton opened the first free school for girls in the U.S. in Baltimore in 1808. More than six million children attend 34,000 private schools today. If The New York Times can praise Catholic schools for educating “a generation of accomplished Latino and black professionals”―and mourn the closing of those schools―hopefully it will soon take the next logical step. The Times should connect the dots between the dreams of millions of low-income parents like the Sotomayors and practical, constitutional legislation that helps parents choose “the springboard” to success that may be just down the street.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland program at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. CSF-Portland provides privately funded scholarships to low-income Oregon children to attend the private, parochial, and home schools of their parents’ choice.

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Why Washington’s Parents Will Love Charter Schools

By Liv Finne

Many parents are pleased voters have passed Initiative 1240, the ballot measure to allow charter schools in Washington state. This is especially true of parents whose children are trapped in failing inner-city schools. Earlier this year Representative Eric Pettigrew, speaking for many low-income families in his South Seattle district, put it this way:

 

“…[E]very year in our district for the last 15, 20 years, maybe longer there’s been a gap – an achievement gap of the students, there’s been a drop-out rate that’s been just unacceptable as far as I’m concerned. And all I’m asking in this [charter school] legislation is an opportunity to move forward and move forward quickly.”

 

Today, in 41 states across the country, 2.1 million students attend public charter schools. This is a fraction of the 55 million students in the U.S., but their parents are glad to have this opportunity. Word is spreading fast among parents that charter schools create environments well suited to student learning. Waiting lists at charter schools have swollen from about 400,000 students just two years ago to 610,000 students today.

 

Defenders of the status quo fear charter schools because they see them as a threat to funding for conventional public schools, even ones that fail to educate students. Actually, charter schools take no money out of public education, for the simple reason that charter schools operate within the public education system. Charter schools do, however, offer a new choice for parents, a choice many of them enthusiastically embrace.

 

Charter schools offer innovative ways to deliver a public school education. Some charter schools offer the famous Montessori school program. Others use cutting-edge computer programs customized to each student’s strengths and weaknesses. Some charter schools specialize in science and math. Others help special needs students, like the new charter school in New Jersey for autistic children.

 

Charter schools are generally smaller than conventional public schools. On average, a charter school enrolls 372 students, about 22% fewer than most other public schools. This allows charter schools to provide more personal attention to students and promotes a feeling of community and security within the school.

 

Many charter schools require student uniforms. Parents often like charter schools for this reason alone. They know that putting on special clothes for school puts children in the right frame of mind for study and learning.

 

Charter schools often have stronger disciplinary policies. Many parents are concerned that conventional public schools expect too little from students in the way of behavior and self-control.

 

Charter schools set high expectations for learning because they must educate students or they risk losing their charter license. Many charter schools outperform neighboring conventional schools, like Massachusetts’ Commonwealth charters, the Knowledge Is Power Program schools in Texas, or California’s Green Dot charters. These schools have either eliminated or significantly narrowed the academic achievement gap.

 

Charter schools set flexible schedules to meet the needs of students. The rigid rules in conventional schools continually distract students from important work in the classroom. Even simple schedule changes require lengthy union negotiations, and many parents wonder whether instruction time for children is being sacrificed to the priorities of adults.

 

Parents in a charter school have a real voice in their local school. They can talk to the school principal and to the members of the charter school board. These local school leaders know they must educate students in order to attract families or face financial pressures to close the school.

 

The charter school structure provides a high level of accountability―to students, to parents, and to the community. In contrast, conventional elected school boards are often more responsive to powerful interest groups than to the concerns of parents.

 

Giving Rep. Pettigrew’s constituents a charter school option is not only the right thing to do, it is the smart thing to do. People in many Washington communities are happy with their schools and see no need to change. That’s fine, but parents in districts that are allowing too many kids to fail will love charter schools.

Liv Finne is the education director at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Washington state. She holds a law degree from Boston University School of Law and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Wellesley College. Liv is a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

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Why Washington’s Teachers Will Love Charter Schools

By Liv Finne

Mr. Bob Dean is a public school teacher and a supporter of Initiative 1240, the ballot measure voters passed this November to allow public charter schools in Washington state. He is the head of his school’s Math Department, teaches Advanced Placement calculus, and is a past member of the State Board of Education Math Advisory Panel. Mr. Dean describes what teachers must endure in traditional schools today:

 

“The public doesn’t understand that today teachers are being told what to teach, how to teach, when to teach and now even how they will grade, and who they will pass or fail. They are forced to use unproven methods that fly in the face of their professional judgment and then blamed for the shoddy results.”

 

Charter schools offer teachers an escape from the unfair burdens imposed on them by traditional school administrators. How do charter schools liberate teachers? Here are six ways.

 

First, teachers in charter schools have the freedom to design their own educational program and to choose the best curriculum for their students. Teachers in traditional schools have to follow orders from so-called “curriculum experts” sitting at desks in the central district, who often require teachers to use unproven teaching methods and curricula.  For example, “curriculum experts” require Seattle teachers to use a “Reform Math” curriculum that does not work well in teaching children math.

 

Second, teachers in charter schools can offer real input into how the school’s money is spent. Under Initiative 1240, charter school principals and teachers will be able to buy the materials, books, and technology they need to help their students. Central district administrators, by contrast, make virtually all spending decisions for local schools and consume precious resources in the process, delivering to schools less than 80% of the funding they should receive.

 

Third, principals and teachers in charter schools can establish a daily schedule that best meets everyone’s needs. One charter school in Arizona, Carpe Diem Charter School, uses technology to provide instruction during a longer school day, then allows students to take Fridays off, and still achieves better learning results for students. Teachers in traditional schools have no control over the daily school schedule.

 

Fourth, teachers in charter schools are evaluated on their performance on an individualized, humane basis by a high-quality principal who knows them well. Teachers in traditional schools in Washington state will soon be evaluated on a complex checklist of factors, reduced to a matrix of numbers, which cannot possibly capture a teacher’s unique and quintessentially singular ability to motivate and inspire students to learn.

 

Fifth, teachers in charter schools benefit from the principal’s ability to place an effective teacher in every classroom. Teachers in traditional schools often receive students in their classrooms who are behind because teachers in earlier grades failed to prepare students properly. Just one weak teacher in a school has a detrimental ripple effect on the many good teachers who receive that teacher’s students in later grades.

 

Sixth, teachers in charter schools are generally happier as professionals because they are allowed to decide what to teach, how to teach, and how to evaluate their own students’ progress. Teachers in traditional schools have seen their authority eroded, as legislatures and district administrators force them to follow the latest education fads. Excellence in education cannot be standardized or mass-produced. Excellence can only be achieved when the principal and teachers work as a team and have the tools they need to deliver quality instruction.

 

Charter schools are an effective antidote to the growing standardization of traditional schools. Charter schools allow teachers the freedom to use their ingenuity, creativity, and energy to individualize the education they offer students.

 

This freedom in the classroom is why charter school teachers in other states have been so successful at educating children, especially the most at-risk and disadvantaged kids. This freedom-to-teach is why teachers in Washington state will love charter schools, now that voters have approved Initiative 1240.

Liv Finne is the education director at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Washington state. She holds a law degree from Boston University School of Law and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Wellesley College. Liv is a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

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Charters Can Expand Children’s Options in the Evergreen State

By Paul Guppy

The school bell rings, and rows of eager young faces turn expectantly to the front of the class as the teacher begins the day’s lesson. These students look forward to graduation day, when they hope to embark on a future made brighter by a good public education. Sadly, for nearly half the students at some public schools, that day will never come. They will drop out instead.

Why would loving parents tolerate a school that fails to educate their children? Often it is because they have no choice. District officials assign students to schools, primarily based on their ZIP codes, and many families can’t afford private school tuition.

Charter schools, which have existed for over 20 years, are an alternative within public education which can give parents and children another option besides traditional neighborhood public schools. Today, 41 states and the District of Columbia have charters, serving about two million children attending nearly 5,600 schools. A further 600,000 students are on waiting lists.

Charter schools are community-based, tuition-free, and open to all students. They must meet academic standards and provide the same equal treatment and public safety protections as other public schools.

Thirteen years after Oregon’s charter school law was passed, 115 charters operate in Oregon. Washington State has no charters, but voters there have a chance to change that in November. Washington’s Initiative 1240 would create a modest charter school program. The initiative would allow up to 40 public charter schools over five years within the state system of 2,345-schools, with up to eight new schools allowed each year. Priority would be given to charter schools serving at-risk children or students attending low-performing schools.

Charter schools allow principals flexibility in areas like scheduling, teacher hiring, budgeting, curriculum, and community relations. A charter school can offer longer instructional hours and be open to students on evenings and weekends, regardless of central district rules.

Charter school enrollment is voluntary. If more families apply than there are spaces available, students are chosen by lottery. Charter schools cannot discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, sex, disability, or other protected categories .

Several large-scale studies show charter schools perform better in educating hard-to-teach students than do conventional public schools. For example, a Massachusetts study found that “Charter Schools in Boston are making real progress in breaking the persistent connection between poverty and poor [academic] results.” Researchers found that New York City charter school students scored 31 points higher in math and 23 points higher in English than similar students in nearby schools.

Charter schools have become a well-established educational option in Oregon and across the country. Enrollment is growing in schools which are in high demand by parents. Oregon’s Corbett Charter School was ranked second in the nation by the Washington Post in 2012.

Charter schools can play an important role in helping parents successfully educate their children. Unfortunately, defenders of the educational status quo in Washington (like defenders of the status quo elsewhere) vigorously oppose allowing charters to open there. Parents deserve better. The vast majority of Washington’s public schools would be unaffected; but for many low-income and minority children, access to a charter school could prove to be their best chance for a better life. It’s time that Washington parents had more control over the educational options available to their children―options currently available in most other states. Washington voters have the opportunity this November to make that happen.

Paul Guppy is the vice president for research at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Washington State. He is a guest contributor for Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

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