Executive Perspective

Charter Schools: Exception to the Rule

by DANIEL A. DOMENECH

The number of charter schools in the United States has grown significantly over the last decade. Currently, more than 4,400 charter schools operate in 40 states and the District of Columbia, with a pupil population of 1.3 million, or about 3 percent of the total school enrollment.

Daniel DomenechDaniel A. Domenech

Over 55 percent of charter schools are located in cities and urban centers. Nationally, about 56 percent of the students in charter schools are either African American or Hispanic. It is not surprising that the growth of charter schools in urban settings coincides with the large number of “dropout factories” in large cities and poverty-ridden rural and suburban areas. The plight of urban students waiting for a lottery to determine whether they would be admitted to a charter school is the central theme of the movie “Waiting for Superman.”

AASA supports charters operated by the public school system. Charters operated by private groups and not-for-profit organizations are using public school dollars but may not be subject to the same rules and regulations or be held accountable as the public schools are. In addition, nonpublic charters can further subsidize their budgets with foundation funding and private-sector contributions.

Broader Responsibilities
We acknowledge there are some exceptional charter programs meeting the needs of their students. The personification of “superman” the movie refers to is Geoffrey Canada, recently named to Time magazine’s list of the most influential people in the world. Canada is president of New York City’s Harlem Children’s Zone. (He was also a keynote presenter at AASA’s February 2010 conference.)

Canada’s program has become the prime example of how charters can provide at-risk children with the education and support that will allow them to prosper in an otherwise bleak environment. Indeed, the Harlem Children’s Zone became the model for President Obama’s federally funded Promise Neighborhood initiative.

If you were in Phoenix to hear Canada’s passionate presentation, you know he is all about providing children from impoverished communities with the services and support they will need to survive and thrive. His formula very much parallels AASA’s position on educating the total child.

In communities such as Harlem, schools must take on broader responsibilities than just teaching a child to read and write. All factors external to the classroom that affect learning must be taken into consideration and coordinated with instructional activities. Health, nutrition, child care, the family, the home environment, and other social and environmental factors become critical components of the total education experience.

With 93 percent to 100 percent of students scoring at or above grade level on New York state’s language arts and math tests, the Promise Academy Charter School that is part of the Children’s Zone effectively demonstrates that all children can learn in spite of social and economic circumstances.

Another successful charter school network is the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP schools. Currently, 99 KIPP schools operate in 20 states and the District of Columbia, serving more than 27,000 students. Over 80 percent of the students are from low-income families, and 95 percent are either African American or Hispanic. As with the Harlem Children’s Zone, KIPP boasts impressive results with a student population usually associated with failure.

Positive Perceptions
It becomes easier to understand the appeal of charter schools in the face of the media coverage that the Harlem Children’s Zone and KIPP receive. But not all charter schools have been as successful. A recent study by a research center at Stanford University reports that 17 percent of charter schools provide superior education results among their students. However, 37 percent deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools. The remaining schools achieved results no different from those of local public schools.

The charter school issue is part of what I refer to as the 95/5 dilemma. The 5 percent of schools in America that are dysfunctional and failing are defining the remaining 95 percent. The vast majority of public schools in America provide an excellent education for the children who attend them. According to the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, 77 percent of parents with children in public school give their school a grade of A or B. That’s the largest percentage ever in the history of the poll.

Many school systems in America provide an excellent education to low-income children and children of color. Their results match the performance of children attending KIPP and HCZ schools. Montgomery County in Maryland, Fairfax County in Virginia and Gwinnett County in Georgia are among the largest school systems in America, yet they provide excellent educational opportunities to a diverse population of youngsters.

Federally funded Title I, award-winning schools throughout the country have demonstrated the ability to properly educate economically disadvantaged students, and they are not charter schools. Let us not assume that public education in America is a failure based on the poor performance of a small percentage of our schools. Let us not ignore the success of the majority of our schools.

Let us not ignore that economically disadvantaged children and children of color are being properly educated in communities throughout America in traditional public schools. By definition, charters are the exception to the rule. We can learn from them, but they will never replace America’s public schools.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org