Are Charters a Drain on Traditional Public Schools?
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Are Charters a Drain on Traditional Public Schools?

Charters are a legitimate part of the public school system

LATimes Dust-Up Asks: Is it really a bad thing that charters put pressure on low-performing public schools? Lisa Snell and Ralph E. Shaffer finish their debate. To read Shaffer’s response, go here.

Ralph, charter schools are the way to go. In a March speech on education policy, President Obama championed charter schools, praising their innovation and urging states to lift caps on their growth. Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have called for doubling the number of charter schools across the country. They want high-quality charter schools with proven track records to replace lower-performing schools.

Many urban school leaders in such places as Philadelphia, Newark and Oakland are embracing charters and developing specific plans to close low-performing schools and replicate high-quality charters. For example, the current issue of the Economist reports that, in Newark, 17 schools run by 12 charter-management groups teach almost 10% of the 48,000 children the city’s school system and that these numbers will soon double. Similarly, Philadelphia schools chief Arlene Ackerman has called for replacing 45 low-performing schools with higher-quality charter schools. School leaders have called for an expansion of charter schools because the evidence demonstrates that these schools are improving outcomes for the most disadvantaged and lowest-performing students.

Charter schools should not be viewed as a fiscal drain on school districts. Instead, they should be viewed as high-quality public schools that offer parents more options and raise school districts’ overall quality. Districts should embrace higher-performing charter schools and work to replicate and imitate these schools, which are adding value to their students’ education.

Look at Los Angeles and Oakland, where charter schools have had a positive effect on public education. In Los Angeles, more than 70% of charter schools outperform their nearby district schools. Ten of Los Angeles’ 12 recently recognized California Distinguished Schools are charter schools. Statewide, 12 of the 15 highest-performing public schools serving low-income students are charter schools. Similarly, in Oakland, the highest-performing schools are charters that have raised achievement for disadvantaged students.

In addition, these charter schools are improving performance for middle- and high school students where traditional public schools have often made the least progress. A recent study by the California Charter Schools Assn. found that the gains made in Oakland charters were most pronounced among middle- and high school students, and that these gains are increasing over time. Similarly, the March 2009 Rand Corp. study on charter schools in eight states found that charter students are more likely than traditional public school students to graduate high school and enroll in college.

The evidence that charters outperform district schools is coming in from across the nation. In New Orleans, where more than 55% of students are enrolled in charters, these schools continue to post faster achievement gains in reading and math for disadvantaged students. In Boston, a 2009 study conducted by researchers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that Massachusetts charter schools are outperforming traditional public schools in both math and English.

In California, there is a strong demand from parents for more charter schools. In 2008, charter school enrollment in Los Angeles increased by 8,000 students, and many campuses have long waiting lists. The California Charter Schools Assn. reports that the number of charter schools would need to triple to accommodate all of the students currently on waiting lists in California.

Parents are desperate for more high-quality education options. Charter schools are not a fiscal drain on districts. They are public schools with impressive track records that should be viewed as a legitimate part of a high-performing public school system.

Lisa Snell is director of education at Reason Foundation. This article was first published as part of an Dust-Up “The Great Charter School Debate.”