Monday, March 01, 2004

NEA vs. Charter Schools

In Sunday's ProJo, there was an editorial concerning Governor Carcieri's budget. As the piece noted, the special interest groups started howling almost immediately. And, surprise...

"The biggest outcry seems to have come from cities and towns that cannot live with the $7.9 million cut in local aid (most of it for education -- which means for teachers' compensation) that Mr. Carcieri is proposing. He would actually increase spending on education by $11.1 million, but he believes that an additional $5.7 million should go to charter schools, which serve as laboratories of educational innovation, and other money should go for school construction."

There were some additional parts of the editorial that concerned teachers. I decided to focus on the charter school idea. I did some poking around and ended up on the Center For Education Reform website. They have a few interesting reports, which I'll get to. Additionally, a took a peak at the NEA's stance on charter schools.

At first, it appears that the NEA supports them as long as they have the same standards as public schools. They have their own criteria that they think should be followed. The NEA seems to be generally willing to accept the concept, though they also devote 3/4 of their web page to paragraphs entitled "Failures spur review of charter school laws," "Accountability proves to be elusive," and "Problems plague some charter schools." A reading of those sections begins to reveal an agenda, in my opinion. While the NEA says that charter schools can work, they devoted the majority of their web page casting doubt upon the concept. My initial hope that the NEA may have an open mind to the concept seems to have been premature. It appears as if their predisposition to mistrust anything they perceive to have encroached upon their "turf" is prevailing once again.

Many of the issues brought up by the NEA seem to have been addressed by some reports available on the aforementioned Center for Education Reform (CER). On February 11th of this year, the CER released a report that concluded that strong charter school laws directly affect the success of charter schools. From the site: “We have been tracking the impact of weak and strong laws for years, but now we’re able to say, thanks to additional evidence, that academic achievement and strength of charter school law directly correlate,” said CER president Jeanne Allen. “Not only do strong laws foster a robust charter community in a state, but now we know that strong laws also produce schools that tend toward better results,” said Allen. The full report is called "Charter School Laws Across the States: Ranking Scorecard and Legislative Profiles". The report says of the data contained within that, "[w]hen correlated with a law's strength, these data sources provide a gauge that help predict that states with weak laws will unlikely yield high percentages of charters with strong student achievement." I'm not going to delve deeply into the particulars, though I will give some results for Rhode Island.

On page 7 is an overview of "Lessons Learned About Enacting Charter Laws." Each is detailed (which I'm not going to get into) and the following findings were made:

1) It's often harder to improve a law than to do it right the first time.
2) Once a law is passed, the challenge isn't over.
3) Multiple authorities lead to more and healthier charter schools.
4) Unions are not the only impediment.
5) Leaving anything to be "negotiated in charter" gives the sponsoring agency carte blanche and the charter school little legal autonomy.

On page 10 of the report (within the second data table), the findings concerning Rhode Island are detailed. It notes that the Rhode Island law was passed in 1995 and now there are a total of 8 schools. RI is ranked 36th as far as strength and likelihood of charter school success, getting a grade of "D" (weak).

Further, the CER released a supplementary report entitled "Strong Charter School Laws Produce Better Results: A Special Report" which further analyzes the findings of the study. Within this report are the following findings:

- The number of charter schools operating in the US grew by 10%, from 2687 to 2996 from 2003 to 2004.
- Since 1992, 9% of charter schools opened have been shut down. Most closed as a result of not meeting rigorous performance contracts, funding inequities and poor management or programs. Other causes ranged from political or organized labor opposition to zoning impediments.
- Charter schools are serving disproportionately high numbers of low-income, at risk and minority students.
- Charter schools use a wider varitey of innovative curricular, are smaller, give more instructional time, attract more students than they can serve and still receive fewer dollars than non-charter public schools.
- Data on enrollment shows that the nation's charters now serve approximately 750,000 students in 37 states and the District of Columbia.

It appears as if, when charter schools have failed, CER contends it is because they had been almost set up to fail. Perhaps the most important fact to take out of these reports is that the "presence of charter schools has also stimulated improved performance in neighboring non-charter public schools." Yes, it appears as if competition breeds excellence.

So, what should Rhode Island parents do? Support the Governor in his bid for more charter schools. Most of us should know by now that the teachers in Rhode Island have some of the best salaries and benefits in the nation. For them to rail against charter schools is self-serving. Unions were founded, and succeeded, in that they sought to protect the average worker from the tyranny of management/ownership and monoplies within industry. It is ironic that organizations such as the NEA, a union, are aggressively protectionist when it comes to maintaining their own monopoly in the "industry" of educating our children. They have become that which they so effectively fought against. Could it be that they believe that as long as it is a union holding monopoly power, that it is a sort of benevolent monopoly, and all is ok? Could they be putting their financial well-being, political power and self-serving interests over the best interests of the children, as they charge private, "capitalistic," charter schools would do? Isn't it time to try something new?

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