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A Chartered Future

Thanks in part to the Obama administration, charter schools have more support than ever. But as the movement expands, the controversy continues.

Thanks in part to the Obama administration, charter schools have more support than ever. But as the movement expands, the controversy continues.

Mondays and Fridays at the Amistad Academy in New Haven, Connecticut, begin with a drum circle and end with a pep rally. Students at the KIPP Infinity School in East Harlem are expected to attend classes for three weeks every summer. And at YES Prep Southeast in Houston, kids have to take at least one Advanced Placement course before they can graduate.

What these institutions have in common, of course, is that they’re all charter schools—independently run with classes, practices, and rituals as diverse as their student bodies. And while the almost 5,000 charter schools in the United States make up less than five percent of the total schools nationwide—caps on the number of charter schools are being lifted and that number is steadily climbing.

They are not without their detractors, however. Since 1991, when Minnesota first allowed charter schools, education experts have contentiously fought over their effectiveness, the equity of the populations they serve, and whether the privatization of school systems helps or hinders widespread reform. Publicly funded (and often supplemented with private money), charter schools don’t have to conform to many of the rules that govern traditional public schools: For instance, they can set their own schedules, teach novel curriculums, and employ non-union teachers.

And these days, charter schools’ support from people in high places is booming. With its Race to the Top competition, the Obama administration demonstrated support for charters by favoring states applying for federal funds that had expanded caps on the number of charter schools that could be established within their borders. Given that historically the Democratic party had aligned itself against charter school expansion, Obama’s support for them means one thing: The future will look like more charter schools.

Charters, like their traditional counterparts, have varying degrees of effectiveness. According to a study released last year by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, only 17 percent of charters outperformed standard public schools, whereas 37 percent produced worse results.

Recently, the State University of New York chose to close a financially unstable charter school in Albany. In addition to its fiscal failings, the school was unable to meet standards set by SUNY. Meanwhile, a joint venture between Microsoft and the Philadelphia school district—called School of the Future because each student is issued a laptop and the curriculum is largely computer-based—has struggled to develop its pioneering methodology and differentiate itself from neighborhood public schools.

Such missteps have, in part, contributed to the contentiousness surrounding charter schools. Whereas some states, such as Illinois, Louisiana, and Tennessee raised their charter caps; others, like New York, have yet to change their policies on charters. (New York, for instance, kept its number steady at 200—a move that many say kept it from winning any prize money in the first round of the Race to the Top competition.)

As a political compromise, policy analysts and politicians proposed the so-called “smart cap.” The system would allow already successful charter operators to open new schools without counting against a state’s cap number. “I think one of the risks of the smart caps idea is that it will probably reduce the variety of charter schools that are out there,” says Erin Dillon, a senior policy analyst at the Education Sector, an independent think tank.

But given the disparate results from the hodgepodge of charter schools out there, a little consistency might not be such a bad thing. “I think charters, when they started, were a little bit more of an R&D shop,” says Marco Petruzzi, CEO of Green Dot Schools, which operates 18 schools in the Los Angeles area and one in the South Bronx. “People were experimenting, particularly in low-income communities.”

Green Dot is an example of a charter school operator that works, Pertuzzi says, adding that it has no idiosyncrasies, such as drum circles or extended hours; rather Green Dot’s hallmark is an obsessive focus on “retaining each kid.” Before Green Dot took over a failing Los Angeles high school, it was sending only five percent of its students onto college; now, more than 75 percent of its kids go into four-year college programs.

Another celebrated charter network, KIPP, first started in Houston in 1994 with 50 students. It has since expanded to 82 schools in 19 states. KIPP is best known for its extended school days: 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., plus some Saturday classes and mandatory three-week summer school. There are, however, several other components to its success, says Steve Mancini, KIPP’s national spokesman. Teachers go to students’ homes to sign a commitment to excellence with parents. KIPP also encourages hard work and strength of character through its so-called “paycheck system,” where students earn money to spend at the school store and attend various field trips.

The system seems to be working: Over four years, KIPP students doubled their proficiency in both reading and math. It’s already served as the model for Achievement First, which is the organization behind Amistad Academy, and the superintendent of Houston’s schools has proposed extending the school year, citing the KIPP model as an inspiration.

Because charter schools are all unique, however, expansion poses an interesting challenge. KIPP, for example, is likely to expand only in areas where it already has established schools, says Mancini, allowing it to take advantage of economies of scale, rather than opening far-flung schools, all of which need their own dedicated support staffs.

“Right now, on the kind of per-pupil dollars that we put into public education, it's hard to keep it growing,” adds Education Sector’s Dillon.

In order for charter schools to fulfill their purpose, to provide an example of true innovation in public education, the future will likely encompass not only increased accountability, but also a great many options. And as traditional public schools learn from their charter peers the distinction between the two may one day melt away, according to Dillon: "In my head, ideally what you'd eventually come to is a lot of good public school choices for students. And for parents, it won't matter if the school is charter or not."

Illustration by Parliament of Owls.

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