Special Report
Federal Opinion

Congress: Spread the Wealth to Charters

By Richard Whitmire — February 10, 2009 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Educators are downright giddy these days with billions of dollars in stimulus spending likely to come their way. A Christmas-in-February funding surge could help rehire laid-off teachers, prevent further firings, and build new schools. Big payoffs would result from the investment, educators promise.

But a far more significant education payoff is unfolding, one that draws little federal money and yet promises to emerge as the biggest success of the school reform movement: charter schools.

As little as five years ago, the phrase “charter school” brought to mind dingy basement classrooms where students never managed to outscore their peers in regular schools. For years, that was somewhat true, which probably explains why so few have noticed the recent breakthroughs. In fact, these recent charter successes appear to have escaped the U.S. Senate, which ignored them in its stimulus bill.

In Los Angeles, the Green Dot charter group is turning around that city’s gnarliest school, the infamous Locke High School. In Philadelphia, Mastery Charter Schools did the same with violence-plagued Shoemaker Middle School. And the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, charters, which now number 66 schools in 19 states, are taking students slated for failure and sending them off to college at the astonishing rate of 84 percent.

These developments have been recent and involve only a few of the best charter operators, which in addition to KIPP, Green Dot, and Mastery include Aspire Public Schools, Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, and a few others. Among the nation’s 4,000 charter schools, probably no more than 300 qualify for this elite status.

The critics who downplay these schools’ successes, suggesting they can never go to “scale” and educate entire cities of urban children, have a point. KIPP for example, won’t compromise on teacher and principal quality. Adhering to that principle, KIPP can expand only with very deliberate speed.

So why are these breakthroughs possibly more important than the billions in federal dollars about to be shoveled into schools? Because these elite charters are proving it is possible to take average children from tough neighborhoods and get them enrolled in college at very high rates. Until recently, that just wasn’t thought possible. The breakthrough is sending a message to regular public schools that they should adopt some of the innovations pioneered in these schools.

Some examples:

• In Massachusetts, 10 schools recently lengthened their instructional days by 25 percent. Employing longer school days (with the time used wisely) is a hallmark of these successful charters. Those traditional schools in Massachusetts are seeing a boost in state scores in math, English, and science in all grades.

• In Denver, the Bruce Randolph School won the authority to set its own course on hiring, pay, and structuring the school day. The newly won freedom appears to be contagious in that city. In the successful charters, the authority to hire, train, promote, and fire is considered the most important ingredient.

• In the District of Columbia, Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has drawn a line with the teachers’ union, demanding the authority to purge ineffective teachers—a tool she knows she must use to compete with charter schools, which already educate a third of Washington’s students and have that authority.

• In New York City, an innovative teacher-training program designed by the elite charter school operators there (KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First) and housed at Hunter College will soon expand to take in teachers on their way to traditional city schools. These charter founders pioneered classroom-management techniques that explain why visitors to their schools see lively but intensely focused classes with few discipline problems.

And yet, in spite of these breakthroughs by charter schools, and the spinoff lessons for traditional schools, there’s a chance the massive stimulus bill will bypass charter schools. Only the House of Representatives’ version of the legislation offers charters assistance.

The ability of successful charters to expand is linked directly to their facilities. Unlike regular public schools, charters must build or rent their own space. Aspire Public Schools, for example, wants to convert two abandoned warehouses in South-Central Los Angeles into schools. Hundreds of Latino parents have signed up for the schools. The problem is, Aspire can’t afford the 6 percent to 7 percent interest rate on construction loans. A simple loan guarantee from the federal government would take that rate down to a doable 4 percent.

The first task of the stimulus package, of course, is to stimulate the economy. School construction qualifies. But why not also stimulate the education system that for decades has failed our neediest children, by spreading the wealth to the charter school operators who are serving them so well? Barack Obama gets the importance of these schools. It’s no coincidence that the president and first lady Michelle Obama earlier this month chose a charter school to visit and read The Moon Over Star. Does Congress get it?

A version of this article appeared in the February 11, 2009 edition of Education Week

Events

Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Roundtable Webinar: Why We Created a Portrait of a Graduate
Hear from three K-12 leaders for insights into their school’s Portrait of a Graduate and learn how to create your own.
Content provided by Otus

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal A Bipartisan Bill Aims to Boost AI Education for K-12 Teachers
A new bill would create a grant program at the National Science Foundation focused on AI and K-12 schools.
4 min read
Highway directional sign for AI Artificial Intelligence
Matjaz Boncina/iStock/Getty
Federal K-12 Leaders Denounce Antisemitism But Reject That It's Rampant in Schools
Three school district leaders said they're committed to rooting out antisemitism during a hearing in Congress.
6 min read
From left, David Banks, chancellor of New York Public schools, speaks next to Karla Silvestre, President of the Montgomery Count (Md.) Board of Education, Emerson Sykes, Staff Attorney with the ACLU, and Enikia Ford Morthel, Superintendent of the Berkeley United School District, during a hearing on antisemitism in K-12 public schools, at the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, on May 8, 2024, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
From left, David Banks, chancellor of New York City schools, speaks next to Karla Silvestre, president of the Montgomery County, Md., school board; Emerson Sykes, staff attorney with the ACLU; and Enikia Ford Morthel, superintendent of the Berkeley Unified school district in Berkeley, Calif., during a hearing on antisemitism in K-12 public schools, at the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, on May 8, 2024, in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Federal Miguel Cardona in the Hot Seat: 4 Takeaways From a Contentious House Hearing
FAFSA, rising antisemitism, and Title IX dominated questioning at a U.S. House hearing with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
6 min read
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies during a House Committee on Education and Workforce hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies during a House Committee on Education and Workforce hearing on Capitol Hill on May 7 in Washington.
Mariam Zuhaib/AP
Federal Arming Teachers Could Cause 'Accidents and More Tragedy,' Miguel Cardona Says
"This is not in my opinion a smart option,” the education secretary said at an EdWeek event.
4 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks during Education Week’s 2024 Leadership Symposium at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Va., on May 2, 2024.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks during Education Week’s 2024 Leadership Symposium at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Va., on May 2, 2024.
Sam Mallon/Education Week