WASHINGTON — Walking into a classroom filled with students laughing and learning, it’s hard to imagine this charter school will close in just a few months. Places like this are supposed to be the centerpiece of the president’s plan to reshape education in America.
The William E. Doar Jr. Public Charter School, a performing arts school in northeast Washington, plans to close its high school in August to focus on the elementary school, which didn’t meet standardized test scores last year, and renew its emphasis on the performing arts at an early age.
After the news came that the school was closing, parents began to plan. Tanya Hales has been researching high schools and attending public charter school fairs to decide where to send her daughter, Skylar, who would have gone to the high school next year. The performing arts school helped eighth-grader Skylar come out of her shell and realize her passion for fashion design. Hales has had some difficulty finding a replacement high school that offers fashion design. But she isn’t upset by the decision and says Skylar is looking forward to a new opportunity.
“I think it was a good decision,” says Hales. “My feeling is if you can’t do it as well as you possibly can then it would be best to just stick with what you do best.”
The future of education in America?
If the administration has its way, more charter schools will open across the country as part of President Barack Obama’s plan to offer more choice in public education.
Through the competitive “Race to the Top” grant program, the administration has been rewarding states that implement education reform. Education Secretary Arne Duncan created a multi-billion sweepstakes to overhaul U.S. schools and bypassed the normal route – and attendant fight – in Congress about what shape “reform” should take. Duncan has referred to it as a part of a “quiet revolution” in the choices parents have for schooling in their children.
The revolution appears to be marching forward. The president has proposed $372 million for establishing more charter schools in his budget proposal for next year. And he’s made the argument that this kind of learning is crucial to American competitiveness.
The Inspired Teaching Public Charter School, located in northwest D.C., is one school that will be opening in August. Founded by the Center for Inspired Teaching, an educational organization that has been training teachers since 1995, the center will put its philosophy into practice. It will have a teacher residency program with each classroom including both a teacher-in-training and an experienced teacher. The school will also be one of the few in the city to offer a full-day program for three-year-olds.
“We’re a school where kids’ curiosity will drive the curriculum and where they will master the basics of every subject, but through building their curiosity rather than what happens too often in many schools where their curiosity gets shut down,” says Aleta Margolis, founder and executive director of the Center for Inspired Teaching.
But while the administration is pushing toward more charter schools, many of the current schools are frequently shutting down.
The D.C. Public Charter School Board shuts down 25 percent of all the schools that launch. Although advocates see the shuttering of low-performing schools as a positive characteristic of the movement, it’s not always easy for students and parents — and teachers and staff.
“Some [parents] have been angry and they have a right to be. It is disruptive,” says Mary Robbins, co-founder of WEDJ. “I’ve certainly had a lot of students come to me and ask, ‘What happens now?’ because with some students who were struggling before this year, they’ve done very well this year.”
Strong interest in what the schools offer
Interest in charter schools has been on the rise from both parents frustrated with traditional public schools and those interested in opening a school. The D.C. Public Charter School Board had more than 2,000 people at its annual fair and received 19 applications to create new public charter schools. A charter school is an independent public school that is funded mainly by the state, much like a traditional public school. They are tuition-free and open to any student who wishes to enroll.
Charter schools have more freedom to experiment with innovative learning techniques or environments. Supporters emphasize that they are held more accountable than traditional public schools. The board that approves the creation of schools also has the power to shut down any low-performing schools.
Robbins says WEDJ opened its high school earlier than intended because of demand from families. But ever since the school changed leadership and restructured, the high school has been having difficulties, including record keeping and meeting the needs of its students forcing leaders to make a decision to close it down.
A study done by Stanford University in 2009 found that low-income students perform better in a charter school than a traditional public school. Students at WEDJ respond well to the teaching staff. For many, the school has become their second home.
“We have had kids who’ve run away from home, but come to school everyday and there’s a reason for that,” says Robbins. “The people in this building are our hottest commodity.”
In starting WEDJ, Robbins wanted low-income students to experience the arts and the culture that surrounds creating art. Many charter schools have made it their mission to teach the economically disadvantaged, and have developed expertise in this area.
“There’s no doubt that some low-income students who can meet higher expectations with less extra help, and who have savvy, aggressive parents looking for other options, have benefited a lot,” says Bob Tate, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association.
Many states don’t support charter schools
Ten states don’t have charter school laws and many of them didn’t attempt to create any despite large financial incentives through “Race to the Top,” opting out of the competition if it meant change. Kentucky did apply for a grant, but left out charter school laws. The state was a finalist, but did not receive any “Race” money from the Obama administration.
Maine is one of the 10 states that doesn’t permit charter schools. State Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, told a local newspaper there are a number of ways educators can innovate without introducing a new system of schools that will draw from a limited resource base.
“It’s surprising to me that we’re having this discussion when I think most people in the education community would probably agree that we have more infrastructure and other costs than we can even afford now,” he says.
While laws vary in states that do permit charter schools, many limit the number and freedom of them. According to the Center for Education Reform, a law seen in a majority of the states is a limit on the number of charter schools allowed per year or in total, also known as growth caps, or the number of students that can enroll in a school.
Supporters of charter schools say that having growth caps in place doesn’t allow the charter school movement to meet the demand. According to the National Public Alliance for Public Charter Schools, more than half of charter schools across the country report having wait lists.
Jennifer Drenning, a mother of two in Washington, D.C., applied to a few charter schools last year when she began to wonder if her son was being academically challenged at his current traditional public school. She says her son didn’t get into any of the charter schools, because of the lottery system. When a school receives more student applications for enrollment than it has spots for, it conducts a public lottery where accepted students are chosen at random.
The District of Columbia has a cap of 20 schools per year, but the Public Charter School Board doesn’t approve nearly that many. The board approved four charter schools last year and only 2 in 2008.
“We can approve up to 20 since we are the only authorizer now, but the reviewers, along with our board, don’t say ‘we can approve up to 20, so we’re going to approve 20’,” says Jacqueline Scott-English, director of school performance for the board. “We only approve those applications that we feel strongly can be successful.”
Supporters of growth caps argue that setting a limit allows states to effectively monitor and experiment with charter schools without having to worry about them growing too quickly.
“The national charter lobby has so far always favored quantity over quality. The NEA thinks that’s wrong if the real primary goal is to help kids. Twice as many underperforming as over-performing charter schools is not an overall track record to be proud of. States should be free to implement caps if they believe they need to do that to do a better job of monitoring and ensuring overall charter quality,” says Tate.
South Dakota, which doesn’t have charter school laws in place, has had charter school bills introduced to the state legislature, but many believed they gave charter schools too much power.
“If we ever are to have charter schools, we’ll never get started in this state without beginning with a very restricted environment for them,” said South Dakota Education Secretary Tom Oster.
Drenning, who attended an open house for the Inspired Teaching School, isn’t sure that charter schools are the answer to problems seen in public schools considering she has heard about some of their own problems, including fiscal mismanagement or inexperienced teachers.
“I don’t mean that all charter schools have all these problems, but they are some of the pitfalls we hear about that make us wary of jumping into a charter school–especially a brand-new one,” she says.
Testing, academic quality play a role
The quality of charter schools lies at the heart of the debate. According to the Stanford study, only 17 percent of charter schools have higher student academic performance than traditional public schools.
“NEA supports high-quality charter schools that operate in a transparent way, are held accountable to parents and taxpayers, and do not lead to even greater disparities in educational opportunities than we already have in our society. There are signs that discussions about charter school policy are more frequently starting to reflect these values and priorities. But the reality is that low-accountability schools have been widespread and tarnish the now 20-year record of charter schools,” says Tate.
With the reauthorization and reform of No Child Left Behind, Duncan will ask for more money to continue the president’s mission of an increase in charter schools and the creation of new charter school laws. However, this time may not be as easy as the first time around since the effectiveness and necessity of the program will have to be debated by Congress.
One thing is clear: increased interest in the idea of charter schools doesn’t seem to be stopping. A room was packed with parents and educators on a Wednesday evening interested in hearing more about the Inspired Teaching School’s philosophy and how it plans to successfully make it through its first year and beyond.
“In the first year [things] are going to be bumpy. There will be choices that will have to be made and variables we don’t see coming,” says Zoe Duskin, the school’s principal. “[However,] we are being sensible. We are realizing that there is only so much we can do in the first year.”
Charter school advocates say a system where all charter schools are high quality will help remedy the problem, so there won’t be a need to shut down low-performing schools like WEDJ.
“One thing that [the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools] is a big advocate of is to make sure that we do a much better job of starting schools successfully, replicating and expanding our high quality models,” says R. Brooks Garber, vice president of federal advocacy for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, “so that we can build a larger portfolio of high performing schools and hopefully don’t have to shut down as many.”