We don’t know whether public charter schools will raise American education to a new level. The independent, tax-supported schools just passed the 2 million student mark, but that’s only 4 percent of schoolchildren. On average, charter students are doing no better than regular public school students.
We do know, however, that charters in the District are a success, if you judge by achievement, growth, parent support and thoughtful supervision. Forty percent of D.C. public school children are in charters. The system has become a national model because of hard work by thousands of educators in 53 charters on 98 campuses and inspired leadership by the D.C. Public Charter School Board.
Take a look at the comprehensive report released by the board Tuesday. It assesses each charter school, not just on test score levels but on score improvement, attendance and the percentage of students who re-enroll. The data are easy to read. The flaws and strengths of each school are clear. “Parents and stakeholders now have this great tool,” board Chairman Brian Jones said.
Most important, the board warns that schools doing poorly are likely to be closed. The board’s Performance Management Framework (PMF) calculates the percentage of points each school has attained toward its target in each category. Schools “that fall below 20 percent of possible PMF points may be candidates for revocation,” the board said.
The board is not waiting for students to suffer another year of bad schooling. “The PCSB will make school closure decisions between December and February 2012 and schools may be closed by the end of the school year,” the announcement said.
The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools celebrated the national growth of charters this week. Enrollment increased 200,000 this year, the largest single-year increase. There are 5,600 charter schools in all. The George W. Bush and Obama administrations have supported charters as alternatives for dissatisfied parents.
The numbers are deceptive, however, because many charters are not working well. Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes calculated 37 percent have achievement gains below those of regular public schools, and only 17 percent have gains that are significantly better. The solution is to close the bad charters, as the District is doing, which is one reason why its charters have better achievement averages than regular public schools.
At the same time, expand the best charters. Educators know which charter management organizations have that capability. Seven of the eight highest-performing public schools in Denver are part of two charter networks, the Denver School of Science and Technology and West Denver Prep. The Noble Street network has 10 high-performing charters in Chicago. Nonprofit organizations such as the Charter School Growth Fund identify which schools are getting results, and invest in them.
Even a few regular schools superintendents support charters. D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson have been pro-charter. Superintendents in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago also are supporting the independent public schools.
The D.C. board is making a special contribution by pioneering charter assessment. In its new report, the KIPP DC KEY Academy is in the top tier — with 96 percent attendance, 88 percent re-enrollment and 87 percent of its reading growth target achieved. The SEED high school, in the middle tier, has 97 percent attendance and 89 percent re-enrollment, but achieved only 35 percent of its reading target. On the bottom tier is the Center City Congress Heights charter, with 91 percent attendance but only 61 percent re-enrollment and 57 percent of its reading target. Several other factors are reported to fill in the blanks.
If the board closes more poorly performing schools, that may mean less charter school growth. But it will set an example for improving all schools — charter and regular. That was what the originators of the charter movement were hoping for, and that is what seems to be happening in the District.