Few Solutions In Book on Charters

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 26, 2008; 5:34 AM

Journalists, particularly me, tend to get excited about charter schools, the independently run public schools that have produced -- at least in some cases -- major improvements in achievement for children from low-income families. The charter educators I write about are often young, energetic, witty, noble and pretty much irresistible. But their charter schools, which use tax dollars with little oversight, are relatively new and untried. Like all experiments, they could easily fizzle.

That is the point of a short, readable and fact-filled new book, "Keeping the Promise? The Debate over Charter Schools," available for $16.95 at http://rethinkingschools.org. The seven chapters make the best case I have ever read for a skeptical attitude toward the nation's 4,000 charter schools. For reasons I will explain, it did not change my view of charters, but it should spark, as the subtitle says, a thought-provoking debate.

The book was published in collaboration with the Center for Community Change, a 40-year-old organization dedicated to building community groups that focus on poverty. It has been looking at inner-city schools for a long time. Much of the book reflects its view that political and business leaders have overlooked, or even exacerbated, terrible classroom conditions. One of the most suspicious things about charters to many of the book's authors is that they are often backed by wealthy corporate executives who, in their view, don't understand what it takes to help poor children.

Parts of the book score direct hits on bad charter school laws and organizations, particularly in Ohio. Amy Hanauer, founding executive director of the nonprofit Policy Matters Ohio, reports that more than half of her state's taxpayer funds for charters "goes to for-profit companies whose bottom line is sometimes less the well-being of the children than the balance of their bank accounts. The largest and most well-known of the charter operators, White Hat Management, had only two of its 31 schools make the federal benchmark of 'Adequate Yearly Progress' in 2006-2007."

The book has a thoughtful piece by school policy guru Ted Sizer and author/educator George Wood with good questions to ask about charters in your town. Do they treat students equitably? Do they provide better access to good teaching for families trapped in public schools that don't provide that? There are provocative chapters on the nation's two most charterized cities, New Orleans and the District. In one chapter, charter educators in Philadelphia, Portland and the District make their case in long interviews.

But the book's overall message is that charters are not what the happy stories in the media make them seem, and there should be better ways to improve learning. Many people agree with that thesis. But the book failed to make the case for me because it offered no compelling or widely available alternatives for the young educators I know who want to save this generation of poorly schooled kids right now.

I was on a panel last week listening to Susan Schaeffler, director of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools in the District, talk about the young teachers and school leaders flocking to KIPP programs throughout the country. Schaeffler's first D.C. school has become the most effective in the city, raising the math and reading achievement of low-income black kids far beyond what most educators here ever imagined. Very rich corporate types give money to KIPP. But the program still draws hundreds of applicants throughout the country who don't have much faith in corporate America but know that KIPP is focused not on money but on results in classrooms. I have studied the data and visited about two dozen KIPP schools. It is clear to me that KIPP teachers change children's lives.

I looked for similarly promising non-charter approaches in "Keeping the Promise." There was one: the Boston pilot schools described by Dan French, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Collaborative Education. These small schools, innovative but still part of their school districts, are making great progress. But French said several times that the pilot schools would never have come into existence if Boston school officials had not felt the need to answer the challenge of charter schools. Many of the pilots, he said, still struggle with over-involved city bureaucrats whom their friends working in charters can ignore.

The authors of "Keeping the Promise," and the charter people they critique, have the same yearnings for change. But the book is embracing what seems to me to be a reactionary attitude. They are not quite sure what they are for, but they sure are uncomfortable with charters. This is fed by quaint notions of the workings of regular school systems, the only practical alternatives to charters at the moment. The chapter on the District says that some charters are funded by foundations that are themselves "funded by AOL, the Gap and Wal-Mart. These groups operate outside of public scrutiny, and the extent of their involvement in the 'evolution' of public education remains relatively unexplored by the mainstream media."

Experts tell me it is company founders or family members, not the companies themselves, that fund these foundations, but the chapter authors have sort of a point. My fellow education reporters and I have spent little time piercing those corporate veils. My job, at least as I define it, is to stay in classrooms and see what is working and what is not, with kids who need good teaching. But it seems wrong to me to criticize such companies as the Gap, whose founders created the KIPP national network, for being outside public scrutiny when the KIPP schools they have created are the most open to outsiders I have ever seen. So far, I have been able to drop in on any KIPP school in the country and take a look around, asking questions, without making prior arrangements. Try that in the regular public schools in those same urban neighborhoods. The security guard will either show you the door or the principal will ask you to get permission from headquarters first, and headquarters will often say no, or be slow to respond.

The nation needs both charter schools and their invigorating critics to make educational progress on a national scale. I have seen how the smartest charter folks are inspiring and training a new generation of activist teachers. I hope those who prefer alternatives to charters will create schools that have the same impact. Then we will all be better off.

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