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Changing my mind about charter schools 

Right now, 10 charter schools are operating in the City of Rochester. Soon, you can expect to see more. The Farash Foundation plans to award up to $1 million in grants to spur charter growth in the region.

While the grants will be available to selected charter schools in Monroe and Ontario Counties, nearly all of the new ones will probably be in the city. That's the case with charter growth throughout the country, because urban districts are where most of the most poorly preforming students are.

For years, I resisted the charter-school bandwagon, based on evidence that students didn't do any better in them than in traditional schools. But I can't oppose them any longer.

For one thing, they offer a tuition-free alternative to the schools operated by the school district. The city's health is tenuous, and one of the biggest risks to its future is the school district. Concern about the district is a big reason families choose to live in the suburbs rather than the city. Alternatives to traditional city schools – including several select district-operated schools like School of the Arts – have kept some parents from leaving. Charters can do that as well, and I think some are.

Still, if their students didn't perform better than those in traditional public schools, I'd find it hard to support charter schools. But there is growing evidence that students in well-run charters do perform better.

One of the reasons, unquestionably, is parent motivation. While charter students are usually chosen by lottery, they don't necessarily represent the average population of their district. Parents of students applying to a charter are likely to be more engaged in their children's education than parents of the other children.

In addition, charter schools tend to have fewer students with disabilities and students for whom English is not the primary language.

In many of them, however, most of the students are black and Hispanic and poor. And in well-run charters, some studies indicate that those students are getting a better education than they would if they stayed in regular public schools.

In a report prepared for the Farash Foundation, the Center for Governmental Research cites a study of New York City's charter schools by Harvard University professor Caroline Hoxby. The study looked at the performance of students who were chosen by lottery for the charters; students who took part in the lottery but weren't chosen and so were going to traditional public schools; and students who didn't take part in the lottery.

Hoxby had two key conclusions, the CGR study says:

1) The students enrolled in the charter schools "did much better" than the students who didn't win the lottery.

2) The students who entered the lottery but didn't win a place in a charter school did better than the regular-school students who didn't enter the lottery.

"That tells us," says the CGR report, "that parental motivation really matters, just as we'd expect."

It also indicates that the charters themselves had an effect.

CGR also cites studies by Stanford researcher Margaret Raymond. In a widely quoted 2009 nationwide assessment, Raymond found that children in the average charter school didn't do better than those in the average regular public school. But in that study and in more recent ones, Raymond and her Center for Research on Education Outcomes have found that in states where charter schools have strong oversight and are held accountable for their performance, charters outperform the non-charter public schools. New York is one of the states where charters are held accountable and non-performing charters are closed.

Raymond and the center have also found that two charter companies with schools in several areas of the country are doing exceptionally well: KIPP and Uncommon Schools. Three of Rochester's charter schools are operated by Uncommon Schools, and a fourth is planned.

The CGR report is careful to say that charter schools "are not a panacea." And Hunter College public policy professor Joe Viteritti echoes that. "But," he said in an interview last week, "there are signs that when run well, they do better."

The reason, Viteritti said, is the accountability – closing what isn't working.

For the problems in urban education itself there is no panacea, because there is no one cause. There are many: the poverty of the children and their families, which too often results in mental, physical, and behavioral problems; the education level and parenting skills of many parents, which results in too many children entering school with poor language and social skills; the quality of some of the teachers and administrators; the quality of teacher education; the bureaucracy of large school districts; the dispersion of power, and the sometimes conflicting interests, of the adults responsible for children's education.

But we have tried for years to improve urban education, and we have made little – maybe no – progress.

And now we have a growing number of charter schools, many having to choose their students through a lottery because so many want in. If charters were a false hope, if students are no better off there than in a traditional public school, it would be different. But the evidence seems to indicate otherwise.

And if that's because their parents are better motivated? "So what?" said Viteritti. "There's something wrong with letting motivated parents make that choice?"

I do worry about the financial impact on the school district. For public school districts, including Rochester's, charters carry a real cost. Most charter students come from district-operated schools, taking per-pupil government funding with them. And while the district has fewer students to educate, it can't reduce its costs proportionally. The charter students don't all come from one classroom or one school. Reducing the size of several dozen classes by two or three students doesn't let the district reduce the size of its staff or close schools.

At some point there'll be real savings, but that won't be overnight. Meantime, the district may have to raise class sizes and reduce services – services that help the remaining children. It may have to limit pay and benefits for teachers and administrators, making it a less attractive place to teach.

Shouldn't we be concerned about that? "To me, it's the wrong question," Viteritti said. "To me, the question is 'what's going to help the kids?'"

Rochester has tried everything imaginable to turn things around. And the majority of the children in the school district either fail to graduate or graduate woefully unprepared for a productive life.

I'm still convinced that we won't solve the problems facing urban education until we focus enormous efforts on children in the city's poorest neighborhoods from birth on. Too many of them enter school unprepared, in language skills and in social skills. And we can't expect teachers to make up for that.

I'm not giving up on the district. I know that teachers in Rochester's traditional public schools will keep trying to do the best they can for their students. And significantly, the Farash Foundation isn't focusing solely on charter schools. It plans to finance some Rochester school district initiatives.

"We are working very closely with Superintendent Vargas and his staff," said the foundation's director of grants and programs, Isobel Goldman, "to identify projects" for the foundation to support. And the foundation will likely be announcing some of those soon, she said.

"There isn't anything we should not do for the students in the traditional public schools," says Kent Gardner, who co-wrote the CGR report for the Farash Foundation. But, he adds, we can't say that we're not going to allow new initiatives that work.

As the CGR study says, charter schools are not a panacea. But the best of them seem to offer opportunity to many children. If wealthier parents aren't satisfied with the education their children are getting in a school, they send their children somewhere else. They move to a different school district or pay for private school tuition. Charter schools offer a tuition-free alternative to poor families. I don't know how we justify denying that choice to those families.

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