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Federal Commentary

Congress: Spread the Wealth to Charters

By Richard Whitmire — February 10, 2009 4 min read

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

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