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Will Bipartisanship Rule in Building Quality Charter Schools?

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By any mathematical equation, a 17-point victory offers newly-elected Governor Bob McDonnell a mandate on those policies he made part of his platform.
And one policy on which he marched in bipartisan lockstep with President Barack Obama was the issue of developing quality public charter schools – particularly those that would serve as a turn-around mechanism in areas where individual schools or school systems had consistently failed to make progress over the past decade.

The Obama Administration’s support for public charters as a means of improving the educational futures of at-risk students is well known. And recent reports from Boston, New York and Washington, DC demonstrate that a quality charter school can make a dramatic difference in the education and the lives of at-risk children. At Harlem’s Democracy Prep, for example, charter school students scored almost as well as students in the affluent Scarsdale suburban school district.

McDonnell’s campaign joined in that bi-partisanship, but it appears to have stopped at the shores of the Potomac River. In a post-election newspaper interview, Virginia Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw declared his opposition to expanding the charter school law on the grounds that they weren’t needed in suburban areas – thus throwing under the bus kids in urban schools where up to 40 percent of the students do not graduate from high school on time.

One would hate to conclude that, given the choice between siding with failing kids or siding with the teachers’ union (which opposes all charters in Virginia), the Democrats are choosing union power over kid power.

Instead, it would be more generous to conclude that there’s simply a concern about expanding any kind of charter, regardless of its quality. In that reservation, there is a kernel of truth.

Public charter schools are designed to be independently operated – schools where educators are given the freedom to design instructional programs that best serve their student population. In return, those schools are to be given strong accountability systems and oversight for student performance.
But not all public charter schools are quality charter schools. It does not serve a child if he leaves a traditional public school that is failing him or her, only to move to a similarly failing public charter school.

While many good parents want better opportunities for educationally at-risk children, starting an effective public charter school isn’t quite like the old films where Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland decide “Oh boy, let’s put on a show!” Too few of those who want to organize a charter have the skills and background to develop a successful instructional program and assessment measures.

But similarly, too many local School Boards – currently the only entities that can authorize a public charter school – misunderstand the role of charters or the School Board’s role as authorizers. They confuse oversight with daily management, and focus on inputs rather than student outcomes. In short, there is a tendency to believe charter schools are okay as long as they are run by School Boards and look like the regular public schools surrounding them – which sort of defeats the purpose in the first place.

The most successful charter schools – the Knowledge is Power Program, Aspire, the Achievement First network – have important common qualities. Among them are high expectations, extra time for students, effective (and multiple) assessment tests and a strong faculty and team spirit.

But these successful qualities flourish best in places where there is a strong balance between offering schools a high level of school autonomy and freedom and demanding strong accountability systems for student performance. Public charter schools that are forced to be dependent on local school systems (and subject to regulatory burdens and limitations on basic operations) rarely succeed. Forcing restrictions on charter schools that limit the level of innovation and flexibility those schools can use tend to result in failure. And focusing on inputs rather than student outcomes puts the emphasis on the wrong end of student learning.

Learning how quality public charter schools operate – and how effective charter authorizers genuinely supervise, rather than manage, those schools – is an important step in revamping Virginia’s charter school law and offering new opportunities for educationally at-risk students.

That’s why the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy will have three charter school experts – Sara Mead, of Democrats for Education Reform; Don Soifer, of the DC Public Charter School Board and Diona McLucas, of the Black Alliance for Educational Options – speak at their annual Education Policy Luncheon on the subject of “What Makes a Quality Charter School?”

This luncheon will be held in Williamsburg on November 18, just prior to the Virginia School Boards Association Convention, and will examine the characteristics of quality charter schools, and what authorizers must do to ensure educational achievement.

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