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Information Left Out of Charter School Debates

  • 07-15-2011
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Themes in the News for the week of July 11-15, 2011

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Statewide charter growth 2000-11CA enrollment public v charterCharter schools are growing in number, and a decision this week by the California Board of Education may increase the pace. The board approved regulations for the “Parent Trigger law,” which would ease conversion of traditional schools to charters at certain low-performing campuses (Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, Educated Guess). A dozen other states are considering similar laws that allow a majority of parents to restructure or close existing schools. Many of these initiatives are supported by local groups that receive significant funding directly or indirectly from The Heartland Institute, a conservative group working for “free market solutions” (Education Week).

A lot of hope for equitable reform is being placed in the charter movement, generally—without clear evidence that the charters will improve conditions for the poorest and most underserved students. Meanwhile, proven school reforms are disastrously neglected; the years pass by without meeting most schools’ needs for fully qualified teachers, reasonable class sizes, adequate instructional time and other basics. 

A common observation of charters is that some select those special education, English learner or poor students whose education is less costly or difficult than similarly labeled students in non-charters. Conversely, the non-charter, traditional schools typically serve more challenging students although this distinction isn’t made clear in many school reports. For example, the public data might not distinguish between a special education student who is disruptive to classmates and one who adjusts easily to school routines (New York Times).

Clear and timely data on student characteristics and demographics are important for assessing the adequacy and fairness of charter school resources. For example, a child whose four-person family earns $40,000 qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch—but so does a child whose family earns less than the federal poverty level of $22,350. Data highlighting the proportion of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch might show that charter schools serve similar students to traditional public schools even as the schools enroll students who vary widely in the learning supports and services they require.

It’s urgent that we understand whether and how the increase in the number of charter schools (currently, charters enroll about 370,000 California students) affects education in all public schools. The success of a few charters offers little comfort if accompanied by broad school system decline and inequality.

Until data and accountability systems improve, the public will not be able to tell whether claims of charter superiority are achieved by better teaching, superior organizational design, better funding, free-market competition, selective enrollments, or if the claims are simply unfounded. Likewise, the public will gain little benefit from valuable lessons to be learned from charter school successes as well as failed charter experiments. A bill authored by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) aims to make charters more accessible by increasing demographic requirements that would more closely mirror the communities they serve (California Watch). The Brownley bill is one step in the right direction.

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Weekly Themes In The News

Each Friday “Themes in the News” explores one of the current week’s “breaking news” topics—selected by IDEA staff and its partners—for summary and reflection.   Hyperlinks of the news stories, which are cited, allow readers to explore the theme on their own.