Chartering A New Course?

Few innovations in American education are more controversial these days than charter schools. Supporters claim that they are the salvation of public schooling and detractors say charters will ruin it. The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle. Quality Uneven, Despite Popularity, a two part article in the Washington Post (part 2) is a good overview of the state of the 39 charter schools operating in the District of Columbia (and the District’s educational system itself).

Unlike many people in public education, I really like the concept behind charter schools. The originial idea was that a group of educators would use public money to create a school based on different learning concepts from those commonly used in "regular" schools. Or they create a school designed for a specific population that is not being adequately served. The concept is excellent. It’s the execution that has generally been less than stellar.

Charter schools, especially in DC, are a real mixed bag. Some are very good, while many never should have been allowed to open in the first place. But considering the poor quality of most public schools in DC, charters look awfully good by comparison.

Some charter advocates say the marketplace weeds out weak charter schools, as parents tend to pull their children out of those institutions and the schools are forced to close. But that has not happened so far in the District, perhaps because even a poorly functioning charter school can look good to parents compared with the regular school their children used to attend.

In the interest of full disclosure I need to tell you that my wife teaches in one of the DC charter schools discussed in this article. I’ve watched the school develop over the four years she’s taught there (it’s been open five) and it seems to be generally good academically. The school, however, is on probation with the charter board for financial problems. Looking both at DC and other areas of the country, that seems all too common. The founders of charters often have a good idea of what they want to do educationally but have poor management skills.

On the other side of the country, the LA Times is reporting (free registration required) a new study that says students in California charter schools showed greater improvement in standardized test scores than did students in "traditional" schools. Add this one to other studies and the Post article and you still get mixed results for charter schools. The experiment continues – as it should.