Thoughts on Charter Schools

My thoughts on charter schools:

Kentucky’s legislature is debating whether to follow most other states by authorizing charter schools – and more specifically, whether to add charter schools to the list of strategies school districts can adopt to turn around persistently low achieving (PLA) schools.

Several people have asked me for my opinion of the proposed legislation and of charter schools in general. Here’s what I think: I’m not very excited about charter schools, either pro or con, and the reasons are simple. First, my sole objective is to improve student achievement. Second, I don’t view charters as particularly relevant to solving the root cause of JCPS’ lowest achieving students.

Nationally there seem to be two fundamental arguments advanced in favor of bringing charter operators into big urban districts like Louisville. First, charters are innovative; they try new and varied approaches, some of which work. This clearly has appeal, since it’s tough to innovate in a gigantic, highly regulated organization like JCPS. But it’s hard to see why JCPS can’t learn from and adopt successful strategies already demonstrated by the best charter schools elsewhere in America over the past decade. Big organizations, well led, can be highly effective at copying and replicating what works, and under Kentucky’s new promise to waive regulations for “Districts of Innovation” JCPS appears to have that opportunity.

The second argument, put forward by Senator Paul among others, is that charters will transform student achievement by offering choice to parents. This sounds good, and I love choice and competition. If the charter legislation passes, I expect the school board to look carefully at the new tool it provides and see how we could use it constructively to help every child succeed.

But “choice” isn’t a new concept within JCPS. Louisville parents today choose from among schools in their geographic cluster, magnet schools and traditional schools. Within many schools are additional choices among tracks and programs, some competitive and some not.

The current choice system is far from perfect. Many families don’t get their first choice, and about 20% don’t get either first or second choice. Family logistics and the student assignment plan mean that many families must choose based on factors unrelated to the best academic fit for their child. And perhaps most frustrating, communication from the District about choices, application processes and decision criteria is confusing – sometimes almost impenetrable. To note that choice is offered is not to express satisfaction with how school selection works today for most families.

But for the lowest performing schools, the big problem is that they are tasked with educating more than their share of kids whose parents don’t prioritize choices about school. Some parents are overwhelmed by poverty or homelessness; others can’t cope with the complexity of the system and are given the short straw. And some don’t get their choice, and are stuck in these schools. Whatever the cause, our system collects the kids whose families don’t engage successfully with schools, disproportionately, in the lowest performing schools.

And it’s a circular problem: If no adult is focused on school, kids don’t just fail to do their homework; they are absent more. (I’m told that at Valley High, 40% of the students are absent for at least one month of the school year.) Where families are homeless or unstable, kids bounce between schools more often – in some schools more than 1/3 of the student body departs each year for other JCPS schools.

These special challenges are over-represented in our lowest performing schools – precisely because so many active, engaged parents manage to take advantage of the choices JCPS offers to ensure that their kids attend elsewhere, leaving behind the kids without engaged adults.

I cannot see how giving parents the choice of a charter school will help these kids. The new schools would choose among applicants (how is not clear), so the kids who lack a parent or guardian to show up and apply are likely to drift elsewhere in the system.

Another reason I’m not excited about charters is that there’s no example nationally of a high quality charter operator scaling (outside of Katrina-flattened New Orleans) to address more than a fraction of a big urban district’s needs. Whether charter legislation passes or not, we will still educate most Louisville students in our public schools.

I wish I believed that charters would solve our problems; a simple solution would be so, so welcome. But in my view there’s no substitute for JCPS doing the hard work of educating all kids, including the ones whose parents can’t or won’t engage to support them and their schools to live up to high expectations. We have to get more creative in communicating with and engaging parents for whom engaging with school doesn’t come easily. We have to partner better with community organizations that can help kids in deep poverty and isolation. We have to evaluate our big systems – human resources, transportation, food services – and be willing to change to remove barriers to student achievement..

What it boils down to is I see charters as a small piece of a very big puzzle. Until we address the root causes of low student achievement, passage of the charter bill in Frankfort won’t meaningfully change the game for Louisville’s most at-risk students.

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