January 19, 2004
Charter School Update

The Washington State House of Representatives Education Committee is having a public hearing on charter schools this Wednesday, Jan. 21 at 8am. Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend because of other commitments. Any supporters of school choice who would like to attend or even make a brief statement to the committee can find more details here.

How a Seattle School Board member who opposes charter schools gave me yet one more reason to support them

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Darlene Flynn, one of the newly elected members of the Seattle School Board. More than the other new board members that I've also met, Flynn is an experienced public servant and has the talents and sense of priorities to make a positive difference for the schools. Unfortunately, she is also misguided in her opposition to charter schools. She recently sent me an email outlining her objections to charter schools, the core of which was:

...draining public dollars from school systems to create schools that all children cannot have access to, rather than focusing resources on creating high quality systems that accommodates all children. This strategy is further flawed in that while it touts competition as its benefit, it creates an uneven playing field when it relieves charters from the State Education Code, because they claim to need this freedom to be successful, while leaving the public schools burdened with constraints they cannot work with.
To support her position, she attached an as yet unpublished article with the title "ARE CHARTER SCHOOLS A FAILED EDUCATIONAL FAD?", by Dr. Gerald Bracey, an academic critic of school choice. As the title might suggest, the article is more of a hatchet job on charter schools than a genuine scholarly assessment. It includes, for example, the following selective report on charter schools in Texas:
In 2002, Texas awarded its top two rankings to 10 percent of the state's charters. But 61 percent of public schools attained these ranks. Conversely, Only 2 percent of Texas' public schools were designated "low performing" but 39 percent of charters received low marks.
In fact, a more honest look at the record of charter schools in Texas not only tells a very different story, but also illuminates the flaw in Flynn's dismissal of charter schools as "not really competition".

In a document titled "Profiles of High-Performing Texas Open-Enrollment Charter Schools" [large PDF] from the Texas Center for Educational Research (TCER), we learn that comparing all charter schools to all public schools is apples vs. oranges, because:

Compared to Texas traditional public schools, charter school students are more racially/ethnically diverse. Charter schools have a greater share of African American students (40.1 percent versus 14.4), substantially less White students (20.4 percent versus 40.9), and comparable proportions of Hispanic students (37.9 percent versus 41.7). Charter schools in Texas also enroll a somewhat higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students (57.6 percent versus 50.5) than traditional public schools.
More importantly, Bracey ignores the fundamental lesson that some of the Texas charter schools work extremely well, much better than traditional public schools that serve a similar population. The TCER study examines the high-performing schools and identifies characteristics that could be applied to other schools.

The point is, and in contradiction to what Darlene Flynn says, that yes, charter schools are competition. They are competition of regulatory regimes and ways of doing business. Exactly as Flynn says, "it creates an uneven playing field when it relieves charters from the State Education Code". Good. If it's the State Education Code (along with union job protections and all kinds of other baggage) that are barriers to a school's success, we need the freedom to figure out exactly which of those rules don't work and should be abandoned and which should be kept. Granting some schools the freedom to operate outside some of those constraints is the only way to figure that out. Not all charter school experiments will work, and the failures should be (and are) shut down. The successful schools should serve as models for what all schools should have the freedom to become.

Kudos to Dick Lilly

Lilly, the strongest voice of reason on the Seattle School Board, had a good letter to the editor in Sunday's Seattle Times

I appreciate your editorial of Jan. 12 taking the Seattle School Board to the woodshed for its resolution against any state legislation that would permit charter schools. However, you should have reported that the vote was not unanimous. I was the lone dissenting vote and, in my comments, made arguments similar to The Times' that we should not arbitrarily close doors to potential innovations in the public schools.

Posted by Stefan Sharkansky at January 19, 2004 03:40 PM
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