Scholars and Scholarship: A Case for Charter Schools

Public and private charter schools have emerged as a striking exception to the dismal system of U.S. public education that has performed so poorly on international assessments of student performance such as PISA and TIMMS. Despite the virulent opposition to them by the powerful California Teachers Association, National Education Association and their political allies in Sacramento and on local school boards who support them, these schools have amassed an impressive record of excellence.

Eight of the top ten public schools in California as ranked by US News and World Report are charter schools. Oxford Academy in Cypress ranked 1st. Pacific Collegiate in Santa Cruz ranked 3rd; KIPP San Jose Collegiate, 4th; Preuss School in La Jolla, 5th, American Indian Public High School in Oakland, 6th; Hawthorne Math and Science Academy, 9th and Mathematics, Science and Technology Academy in Lennox, 10th.

KIPP Empower Academy in South Central is the top performing school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Located in a predominantly poor, disadvantaged minority community where less than 5% of the student population finish college, 75% of KIPP Empower graduates get their degree. Equally impressive records have been achieved by other schools in the KIPP network: KIPP San Jose ranked 41st nationally and KIPP King Collegiate in San Bernardino, 67th.

With the evident benefits for those students most in need, the strong appeal to parents desperate for better educational opportunities for their children (with an admission waiting list of one million names nationally) and the predominantly non-union academic faculty, charter schools represent a powerful threat to the economic and political hegemony of the unions.

These are the primary reasons only a relative handful of charter petitions in California have been granted: 123 in San Diego, 100 in Los Angeles, and 15 in San Francisco. Their toughest opponents may be in Orange County, one of California’s most affluent areas.

Traditionally hostile authorizing agencies have approved only 18 charters in Orange County. The most recent member, Endeavor Albert Einstein Academy of Letters, Arts and Sciences in Huntington Beach, opened its doors to students in grades K-5 last September. Serving 244 students, the school already promises to become one of the top performers in the state.

Founded by a group of concerned parents and educators, the first charter school opened its doors in Milwaukee a mere two decades ago. Since that time, charter schools have expanded into a network of more than six-thousand schools serving 2.7 million students across 42 states and the District of Columbia. The percentage of students enrolled in the schools varies from city to city, from 5-10% in small communities to over 50% in the largest urban centers: 44% in DC, 55% in Detroit and 90% in New Orleans.

Typically, students in charter schools perform 2-3 grades and 30 points higher on achievement tests than their counterparts in traditional public schools. For-profit schools such as the 162-school network operated by KIPP have amassed impressive national rankings as mentioned above. These results have been achieved by disadvantaged students from poor minority communities, traditionally the lowest performing students, which makes the KIPP results even more stunning.

Detractors often challenge these results by accusing charter schools of skimming the cream of the crop or selecting a disproportionate number of gifted students compared to traditional public schools. In reality, only 5.4% of charter school students are gifted compared to 6.7% in traditional public schools. The majority are from low-income families. 63% qualify for the free or reduced-fee federal lunch program compared to 48% in traditional public schools.

Most impressively, charter schools have accomplished all of this on a much-reduced budget in make-shift buildings: abandoned warehouses and schools, unoccupied stores and leased office space. These schools operate on a fraction of the funds per student traditional public schools receive, on average $3,500-$4,500 per student. They are forced to raise private funds to make up the deficit. A small minority receive $7,500 per student. Traditional public schools receive up to $21,000 per student in public funds annually.

Because such excellent results are achieved at greatly reduced taxpayer costs, it flies in the face of common sense and reason to oppose something that would be of benefit to so many in such great need, not to mention the nation itself. Sadly, union politics serve their own interests, not those of the young clients and their parents.

A good education is a right guaranteed to all Americans. School choice is a civil rights issue. Judging by their record, charter schools represent one of the best opportunities for success for those among us who are in greatest need. Parents, educators, school administrators and support groups should petition school boards and state politicians to increase the numbers of charters that are granted.

The primacy of union power needs to end. Their control over the destinies of millions of children needs to be challenged. Nothing less than the future of our country is at stake. It needs to be our fight to the finish.

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About the Author: R. Claire Friend, MD, is the Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, UC Irvine Medical Center, and the editor of the UC Irvine Quarterly Journal of Psychiatry. She is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.

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