Across the Nation, Charter Schools Are Surging

Published July 3, 2008

There has been a bumper crop of charter school stories this graduation season. What’s more, the articles have been largely positive, a sign that these independently managed public schools are gaining popularity.

In Greenfield, Massachusetts, the first graduating class at Four Rivers Public Charter School–26 strong–celebrated the fact that six years ago they had gathered as seventh graders, along with their parents, on an overgrown field. Their school hadn’t even been built yet. They took a leap of faith and fashioned a new school together.

A start-up success story on a larger scale comes from New Orleans, where charter schools have brought an entrepreneurial spirit to education restoration in a city devastated by Hurricane Katrina three years ago. Charters now handle 53 percent of the city’s post-hurricane enrollment; pre-Katrina, they had just 2 percent.

Charters are booming in the state with the longest track record. Although overall public school enrollment in Minnesota is declining, charter schools last year experienced their largest increase since 1991-92, the year the nation’s first charter school opened in Minnesota.

Charter schools are free of most of the rules that hamstring other public schools, including regulations pushed by teacher unions to benefit their members instead of students. This freedom allows charter schools to tailor programs to children’s real needs.

The University of Minnesota’s Joe Nathan, one of the authors of the Center for School Change’s report on “Enrollment and Demographic Trends for MN Charter and District Public Schools,” offered these reasons for the rise in charter enrollments:

“First, small size of the schools. Secondly, safer schools. Third, distinctive programs, whether they’re language immersion, … the arts, things like that. Fourth, there’s a feeling of great respect from teachers to parents and from teachers to students” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune, June 19).

It also doesn’t hurt that charters are public schools that parents can actually choose.

In Rochester, members of the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper’s editorial board visited True North Rochester Preparatory School to learn how it’s racking up some of the highest math scores in New York State. The answer is shorter than the school’s name: discipline.

On Principal Stacey Shells’ watch, students do not talk in the hallways and must walk a straight line to and from the lunchroom. There are carrots, too, in the form of rewards for good conduct and high achievement.

“After all, it’s impossible to teach amid disorder,” the board noted in a June 19 editorial. “Too many City School District teachers know that all too well. Many tell disturbing stories of constant disruptions by students uninterested in learning. They create chaotic environments that make it almost impossible for other students to pursue knowledge.”

There is abundant statistical evidence of the impact of the charter movement. EdSource, an independent research organization, recently found charter middle and high schools performed much better than regular public schools on California’s 2007 achievement tests. Oakland’s charter middle schools scored an eye-popping 210 points higher than the city’s noncharters on an 800-point scale (Oakland Tribune, June 19).

In Denver a group of angry parents came to a school board meeting last month demanding to know why the same choice was not available to them. “We want this for our kids and our families,” said Luci Saenz, mother of a child at Valdez Elementary. “We are ready to fight. We believe in our children, and we believe they deserve it” (Denver Post, May 7).

The successes of charter schools are grabbing attention within the education establishment, but for a different reason. Vested interests want less competition from excellent schools, not more. Thus the Delaware State Education Association (DSEA), the state’s teachers union, expropriated its members’ dues to commission a Washington, DC public relations firm to craft a slick strategy for halting further charter start-ups in the state.

If the likes of the DSEA get their way, students and parents won’t be the only parties with diminished choice. Teachers will join them–unless, that is, success stories just keep coming in and eventually overwhelm the selfish resistance.

Robert Holland ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute in Chicago, Illinois.