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TheRootDC
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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 12/18/2012

Charter schools give choice, but at what cost?

Alfonzo Porter is a contributor to The RootDC and the author of “More Like Barack, Less Like Tupac: Eradicating the Academic Achievement Gap by Countering Decades of the Hip Hop Hoax.” He is a speaker, consultant, former teacher and school administrator.


(Jim Young - Reuters)
When the Brookings Institution released a report last week ranking cities according to their school options, D.C. schools — likely because of its plethora of charter schools — stood out as a national leader in providing parent choice. Yet, the information characterizes the classic good-news bad-news scenario.

On the one hand, parents are provided with an option to remove their children from the chronically low-performing for decades D.C. public schools. On the other hand, serious questions remain as to whether charter schools represent the high quality choice many parents presuppose.

The larger issue is not whether high charter school participation bodes well for the school district, but rather, are parents getting what they thought they signed up for?

Initial studies have found that students attending charter schools do no better than students attending regular public schools. The results have been inconsistent. A report by Mathematica Policy Research found no significant impact on test scores of charter school students in comparison to students in the traditional school model.

According to the Brooking Institution’s Education Choice and Competition Index (ECCI) the scores of large school districts were based on 13 categories of policy and practice. The intent of the ECCI is to create public awareness of the differences among districts in their support of school choice, provide a framework for efforts to improve choice and competition, and recognize leaders among school districts in the design and implementation of choice and competition systems.

D.C.schools ranked third behind New Orleans and New York as a system favorable to the charter movement.

A 2011-2012 school year enrollment audit by the office of the State Superintendent of Public Instruction claims that enrollment in public schools (D.C. public schools and public charter schools) is up 2 percent (1,767) from the 2010-2011 school year, to 76,753, and the numbers reportedly demonstrate a three-year upward trend.

Public charter school enrollment in D.C. during the 2012-2013 school year increased by 8 percent, from 29,356 to 31,562 (2,206 students); this against a decrease in traditional school enrollment of 1 percent from 45,630 to 45,191 (439 students).

The numbers show that overall enrollment in D.C. Public Schools rose from 76,782 last year to 80,823 this year, a 5 percent jump that appears to continue the positive enrollment trend.

Conversely, with only 20 of the system’s nearly 60 charter schools performing in the Tier 1-high performing category, critics question whether after 20 years, expenses associated with the charter choice represent the best option for the nation’s most underprivileged and vulnerable students.

When a student enrolls in a charter school, the $18,667 per pupil allocation follows him or her. Therefore, if advocates for choice are serious about helping students achieve, then they might look to options other than charters. For example, the per pupil expense in D.C. exceeds the tuition of some of the regions well-heeled private schools like Gonzaga, Archbishop Carroll and St. Johns.

Further, the 60 percent graduation rate in D.C. continues to lag significantly behind the national average of 75.5 percent. The cost of failure is exacting as higher performing systems in the region spend less. In Montgomery County, for instance, the per pupil expense is approximately $15,552; in neighboring Prince George’s about $14,020; and in Fairfax County, about $12,554 per student.

Yet, another contentious issue for charter schools remains the controversial and widely publicized student lottery which appears to fly in the face of America’s guarantee of a free and appropriate public education. Education in the United States is compulsory. As such, does a system that can deny a student admission to a school meet that standard?

The lottery is a system of random selection of applications that identifies students for enrollment and generates the school’s waiting list. During the lottery process all completed and accepted applications submitted during the enrollment period are publicly drawn in random order until capacity is reached, and the remainder is placed on the waiting list.

Presently, there are about 5,000 charter schools in the United States with an enrollment of just over 1.6 million.

As an educator, I recognize the desperate need for innovation in the field. A vibrant school system must maintain a spectrum of choices that include not only charters but magnet schools, virtual schools, private schools and traditional models.

For choice proponents like Kenneth Campbell, executive director of Black Alliance for Educational Options, a national advocacy organization for public school choice among black parents, affording parents the right to choose and giving them the resources to opt out of schools that continue to fail their children is rudimentary to education reform in America.

The strength of charter schools rest upon the fact that they do not embody a single-minded pedagogical methodology. To their credit, they represent a full range of programmatic and instructional offerings ranging from language immersion, health sciences, business and finance, technology, math and science and many others.

However, could these options not be provided in traditional schools without the financial decimation of school systems for the sake of new approaches that have heretofore proved their worth?

In the end, it is irrelevant whether D.C. is viewed favorably on some nebulous, competitive analysis. The larger point is that our students are still underperforming after two decades of charter schools.

Given that charter schools are exempt from many statutory requirements of traditional schools like spending, human capital, management, parental involvement, curriculum and instruction practices and governance, it is perplexing that they still cannot best the performance of the much maligned traditional schools on a grander scale.

The performance of many of these schools continues to be disappointing as parents languish in distress over how to provide the best quality education for their children. As of this date, we have failed to provide the answers.

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