Monday, February 26, 2007

Magna Charters

The following is a start toward school reform, unless we dismantle the current failures of our current public education system these same failures in particular the teachers' unions and administrator associations will invade and dismantle the good things that are now happening in our charter schools.

The following article appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Magna Charters

February 26, 2007; Page A19
As he prepared to announce the Aspen Commission's recent recommendations for revamping the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), co-chair Tommy Thompson made a telling remark: "We have been much more successful at identifying struggling schools than we have been in actually turning them around." Regrettably, as with other mainstream groups that have weighed in on the NCLB, the commission's report focuses almost exclusively on fixing ailing schools rather than starting healthy new ones. Both tracks are needed.

The NCLB has laid bare the troubling gaps in student achievement among racial and socioeconomic groups, and it has spurred some improvement, particularly in the early grades. Yet its prescriptions for reform have provoked meager change in schools and systems that produce chronically weak results.

The law lets parents move kids to a higher performing public school -- but in many cities there simply aren't any better choices available. Using federal dollars for "supplemental services" can help -- but tutoring often takes place after students have spent the school day in learning-deprived classrooms.

The act's coup de grĂ¢ce, after years of failure, is to require "restructuring" a dysfunctional school from scratch, through state takeover, contracting-out, or re-opening as a public charter school. But its impact has been stifled by legislative language allowing "any other" step as well. Districts and states have opted to switch principals, give pep talks and hire "turnaround specialists" instead of coming to terms with intractable failure.

Indeed, according to a recent analysis by SRI International for the U.S. Department of Education, only one of 12 states with Title I schools identified for restructuring as of 2004 had reopened a school as a public charter; one turned over operations to the state; two states replaced school staff and eight took no action.

Ironically, the best illustration of the NCLB's mission may be outside this whole "turnaround" apparatus, in the open sector of public education called charter schooling, where parents, teachers and entrepreneurs are creating new schools that are publicly accountable but independent of bureaucratic rules. Reporter Paul Tough recently wrote about three charter-school networks (Achievement First, the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), and Uncommon Schools) for the New York Times magazine. Students attending these institutions made large learning gains despite years of educational neglect elsewhere.

Rather than cobbling together remediation strategies, these schools create an unyielding culture of high expectations, offer significantly longer learning time than traditional public schools, and organize everything (including personnel decisions) around evidence of student achievement. While these are superstars, dozens of independent studies show that public charter schools around the country are closing achievement gaps at a faster pace than their district counterparts.

Despite low participation rates for "official" NCLB-driven choice (less than 1% of those eligible to transfer, according to federal figures), more than a million families, disproportionately poor and minority, have sought out public charter schools on their own. Charters now educate 26% of all public school kids in Washington, D.C.; 28% in Dayton; and 18% in Detroit (and climbing since that city's recent teacher strike). According to our research, charters now account for more than 13% of public school enrollment in 19 jurisdictions.

By all means, the next No Child Left Behind Act should continue pushing to improve existing schools. But the reauthorized NCLB should also be an engine for creating new, high-quality schools in communities where they're most needed. Here's how:

Quality first. The federal Charter Schools Program, authorized in Title V of the NCLB, provides critically important seed funding for startups. It has been an important source of support, especially for small, community-based charters. Created with bipartisan support when only seven states had charter laws (there are 40 today), the program is due for an overhaul, placing more emphasis on funding the strongest startups and replicating top-quality charters.

Grants should be targeted toward places with high numbers of schools "in need of improvement." And states should be expected to promote and monitor quality like the best venture capitalists -- or lose the right to administer the grant program altogether.

The charter program has been flat-lined for four appropriations cycles; it's time to align funding levels with need. Related programs that support charter facilities should be reauthorized and put on a sound financial footing as well, since charter schools do not qualify for state capital programs and only 11 states offer any kind of compensation for facilities needs.

Bust caps. More money will be pointless unless artificial limits on charter growth are lifted in the 26 states that now have them. In some cases these "caps" directly pre-empt the intent of the NCLB. It's actually illegal to create a new charter school in New York State right now -- meaning that a mother desperate to pull her child out of a failing school in the South Bronx may simply have to wait until Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has a change of heart about the state's limit of 100 public charter schools.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings recently proposed reauthorization language permitting local officials to reopen a failing school as a charter even if it would exceed a state charter cap. The secretary's idea is on-target, but Congress should go her one better, permitting cap-free chartering wherever students lack suitable public schools. And the local school board should not be the only game in town. In states where universities and state boards can approve charter schools, they too should be able to override restrictive caps.

Add teeth. Persistently failing schools need fundamental change, not cosmetic touch-ups. Re-opening as a charter, with a proven academic model, new team and clear accountability for performance, can provide a fresh start. But to work, such "re-opened" charters must have independent governance with full autonomy over budgets, personnel and working conditions. That independence must be spelled out in the federal law, or else we risk creating a raft of so-called "charters" still tethered to the same central offices that let students down in the first place.

In its first five years, the NCLB has affirmed a national commitment to educational opportunity for all. In the next five years, it should do more to galvanize real change by ratcheting up its support of public charter schools. A vibrant new-schools sector is the best way to challenge the status quo and offer real promise of achievement for every American public-school student.

Mr. Smith is president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Quote of the Day.

Persistently failing schools need fundamental change, not cosmetic touch-ups. Nelson Smith

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