Charter Schools: Establishing New Standards for Students in Vulnerable Communities

“EVERYONE’S pencil should be on the apple in the tally-mark chart!” shouts a teacher to a class of pupils at Harvest Preparatory School in Minneapolis. Papers and feet are shuffled; a test is coming. Each class is examined every six or seven weeks. The teachers are monitored too. As a result, Harvest Prep outperformed every city school district in Minnesota in maths last year. It is also a “charter” school; and all the children are black.

Twenty years ago Minnesota became the first American state to pass charter-school laws. (Charter schools are publicly funded but independently managed.) The idea was born of frustration with traditional publicly funded schools and the persistent achievement gap between poor minority pupils and those from middle-income homes. Charters enroll more poor, black and Latino pupils, and more pupils who at first do less well at standardised tests, than their traditional counterparts.

Today there are 5,600 charter schools, and they serve more than 2m pupils in 41 of America’s 50 states. This number has grown annually by 7.5% since 2006 (see chart), but is still tiny: charters enroll less than 4% of the country’s public-school students. Some places have taken to charter schools particularly enthusiastically: in Washington, DC, 44% of public-school students attend a charter school.

That figure is dwarfed by New Orleans. There two-thirds of students are in charters, thanks to an overhaul of the city’s disastrous schools after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Today half of charter schools in the city are improving reading or maths at a significantly faster rate than competing public schools; and across the state as a whole charters are performing better.

Parents like charter schools, and waiting-lists for them are growing faster than new places. Nina Rees, the new head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, says more than 600,000 children are on waiting lists. Oversubscribed schools choose pupils by lottery, something poignantly illustrated in the documentary film “Waiting for Superman”. …

[Margaret Raymond, director of the Centre for Research on Education Outcomes (Credo) at Stanford University] says traditional public schools no longer have the excuse that they cannot be blamed for the poor performance of children because of their background; so competition from charters may improve standards in non-charters, too.

Moreover, if charter schools go downhill they can usually be closed more easily than traditional schools. Even so, most of those attending a big schools conference in Minneapolis in June agreed that more bad charters should close. Since 1993 15% of charter schools have shut their gates, most because of low enrolment, a sign that the market is working.

Charter schools have been successful because they offer freedom to shape the school to the pupils, rather than the other way round. Schools can change the length of the school day, fire bad teachers and spend their money as they wish. At Harvest Prep the school year is continuous, with short and relatively frequent bursts of holiday, because that keeps learning on track and kids out of trouble. …

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