Charter School Session: Performance, Perspective, and Passion

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Category: Education & Law, Milwaukee Public Schools, Public, Speakers at Marquette
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Charter schools are “the strongest wave of educational reform in the United States” and they’re not going away, one of the nation’s premier charter school researchers told a conference at Marquette University Law School this week. So what can be done to make the overall results of the movement more positive?

At the conference, titled “Charter Schools: Assessing the Present, Looking to the Future,” Margaret (Macke) Raymond, director of the Center for Research in Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, outlined policy implications of research she has led that includes data from 30 states.

“State policy matters a lot and there are specific policy variables that will get you a fair amount,” Raymond said. For example, authorizers of charter schools need to play their role well if they are to foster high performing charter schools while keeping weak operations from ever opening or closing them down if they are getting poor results. Having multiple local authorizers of charter schools (which Milwaukee has) and having a cap on the number of charter schools (which Milwaukee and Wisconsin do not have) leads to poorer results, Raymond said.

Charter schools are publicly-funded schools that operate to a large degree in independent and self-governing ways, freed from some of the rules and constraints put on conventional public schools. A little over two decades old, the charter movement has grown rapidly, with more than two million students in such schools nationwide. In Wisconsin, there are more than 200 charter schools. Authorizers, most often public school boards but sometimes other government agencies or even private non-profits, give a charter school permission to operate and at the end of a contract period, usually five years, have the power to withdraw that permission based on performance.

Raymond said analysis by CREDO, which has the nation’s largest data bank of information on student performance in charter schools, showed wide variations in student success from state to state. Overall, she said, charters have not done well in closing achievement gaps among groups of students, but have done quite well, especially in some cities, with low-income students.

In a study in 2009 that changed the national conversation about charter schools, CREDO concluded that students in about a sixth of charters were making more progress than comparable students in conventional public schools, students in a third of charters were making less progress, and students in about a half were not doing better or worse than others.

Why do multiple authorizers generally lead to lower charter school success? “Any of you have teen age kids?” Raymond asked. “Any of you have younger kids? When they want to pick a baby sitter, who do they like? They like the one who lets them get away with murder.” Charter schools often apply that notion to choosing the authorizer who will be the easiest on them, Raymond said, adding, “This is pre-pubescent behavior on the part of charter schools.”

She said later that she was not applying that finding to Milwaukee, where CREDO has not done research. Milwaukee has three authorizers: The Milwaukee school board, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Milwaukee city government.

Why do caps on the number of charters hurt success? Because the best operators won’t go to places where they can’t grow, Raymond said.

Asked about the possibility of CREDO doing research in Wisconsin, Raymond said, “I want you to know we’re very interested in Wisconsin.” That especially applies to Milwaukee, with its large private school voucher program. However, the state Department of Public Instruction has not made individual student data available to CREDO. “We are prepared to do that (work in Wisconsin) at whatever point we can negotiate getting data,” Raymond said.

While Raymond provided insight on performance of charter schools, two other presenters provided perspective on the movement.

Results of charter school questions that were part of a new Marquette Law School Poll were presented by Professor Charles Franklin, director of the poll. With the state Legislature considering expanding the possibilities for opening charters across Wisconsin, the poll found that 42% of people had a favorable opinion of charters, 16% had unfavorable opinions, and 42% said they don’t know enough about them to given an opinion.

That was a more favorable response than for the voucher program that allows students to attend private schools using public money – the poll found 27% favorable to vouchers, 24% unfavorable, and 49% giving no opinion.

Public schools in general drew the most favorable responses in the poll by a wide margin, Franklin said. Seventy-two percent of people had a favorable opinion of public schools and 18% had unfavorable views, with only 10% giving no response.

Asked if they what they would like to see for the future of charter schools, 24% said they would like to see more, 22% said they would like to see fewer or none, and 47% said the number should remain the same.

The poll, conducted March 11 to 14, analyzed responses from 1,060 registered voters in Wisconsin.

A different form of perspective was provided by Sarah Carr, author of a new book about education in New Orleans, where 90% of schools are charters. In a conversation with Mike Gousha, distinguished fellow in law and public policy at the Law School, Carr described the difficulties of making progress with high-needs students.

Carr’s book, Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children, focuses on a specific student, a specific teacher, and a specific principal in New Orleans. Carr said the voices of students and educators are often ignored or drowned out by the loud and sometimes heated voices of partisans on all sides of education issues.

She said that the many issues people confront in a city such as New Orleans, including poverty, poor services, and multiple stresses in daily life, make it challenging for both students and teachers to find success. She also described the cultural clashes that can be impediments between long-time, mostly minority residents and idealistic and dedicated young college graduates, mostly white, who have come to New Orleans in large numbers to become teachers.

Carr, who worked at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from 2002 to 2007 before moving to New Orleans, said many of the same issues and barriers can be seen in Milwaukee.

The passion of the charter school debate was clear in a panel discussion of four people who have had strong involvement in charter issues in Wisconsin.

Robert Kattman, the former director of the charter school office at UWM, talked about strategies that can lead to more high-quality charter schools and criticized the gap in financial resources between charter schools and conventional public schools, as well as the difficulty finding good buildings for charter schools.

Carrie Bonk, executive director of the Wisconsin Charter School Association, said proposals included in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget would allow independent charter schools to be created in cities in Wisconsin other than Milwaukee (and one school in Racine), offering more and different options in education.

Ronn Johnson, who led a Milwaukee charter school for more than a decade before taking a new position leading the development of two new charters here that are part of an organization based in Philadelphia, recounted some of his personal history in Milwaukee schools, including the sacrifice his parents made to give him and his siblings good education. He said more needs to be done to deal with the cultural gap between children growing up in the central city and the expectations of a school system anchored in a culture that is unfamiliar to those children. Good charter schools can address that.

But Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, criticized in strong terms the charter movement as it stands in Milwaukee today, saying only Milwaukee Public Schools has the requirement to accept and retain every student, while charters harm the public schools and don’t have the accountability and oversight public schools do.

Peterson’s remarks brought strong reaction from people in the audience, including some support and some criticism of his stands. Arguments among audience members began to develop. While they were kept in check, the strong feelings about whether charters offer fresh and better roads to success or are harming the overall education system in Milwaukee were certainly on display.

Even the most enthusiastic backers of charters would agree that success does not come easily and success has not come as widely as once hoped. Raymond said CREDO intends to focus in upcoming work on the wide variation of outcomes at charter schools, in hopes of shedding light on what works and what doesn’t.

Video of the morning-long session may be viewed by clicking here.



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