Jay Mathews: Depending too much on charters is perilous

Posted at 07:32 PM ET, 02/01/2012 on the Washington Post

A consultant’s report ordered by Mayor Vincent C. Gray says that the District should close or quickly improve 38 regular public schools and send many of their students to a new crop of charter schools.

Charter advocates such as me — my latest book was about the high-achieving KIPP charter network — are expected to cheer that recommendation. D.C. charters on average produce higher achievement for low-income students than do regular public schools. Charters are so popular with parents that 41 percent of all D.C. public school children attend them. They could be the majority in three or four years, my colleague Bill Turque reports.

This charter fan doesn’t think that’s good. It is not clear that the best charters are capable of such rapid expansion. More important, moving kids from bad regular schools to charters in the way Gray’s Chicago-based consultant, IFF, recommends would accelerate the downward spiral of traditional public schools in the city. Regular schools and the people who work in them, with a few exceptions, would become a permanent education underclass. If Gray and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson don’t figure out how to significantly raise the level of our worst regular schools in the next few years, confidence in the system is never going to recover.

The IFF report maintains some hope for regular schools but emphasizes how much better charters are doing. Only three charters are listed among the 41 public schools it says must get better quickly or go away.

Why is that? Gray and Henderson know. Some of their best friends are charter people. The most successful charters insist on high expectations, telling each child that he or she is going to college. They have longer school days and avoid time wasters such as chatty home room periods and pointless assemblies. Their teachers coordinate learning and discipline. They recruit and train principals carefully and give them unusual power over their budgets and the hiring and firing of staff members.

Those charters succeed despite having less money per child than regular schools, as revealed by school funding experts Alice Rivlin and Mary Levy. Rivlin and Levy say charters don’t get their overspending covered by the D.C. Council, don’t get free maintenance and legal services, don’t get money for projected enrollment increases that don’t happen and don’t get free school buildings, as do regular public schools.

Successful charter methods could be applied to the worst regular schools. The IFF report says many regular schools are half-empty, with fewer than 300 students and relatively few teachers, which would make a change to a new principal and new methods easier.

Former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, also a charter enthusiast, had such changes in mind but failed miserably — as she conceded — in recruiting and training great principals, the key to turning a school around. She relied on a slapdash recruitment process and her instincts about which of the administrators she interviewed would be good and which wouldn’t.

The best charter school networks pick principals differently. They put applicants through a series of mind-bending interviews with successful inner-city school leaders and lean toward people with experience in their schools. They have long training periods, some up to a year. The novice principals learn school management from experts and spend months as interns working with charter principals who have great track records.

The D.C. school system has enough well-tested, successful principals to mentor well-chosen new school leaders for a few months. The D.C. system doesn’t have to lengthen the day and create principal autonomy in all the schools, just the ones IFF wants to replace with charters.

I know some activists who would like all city schools to be charters. Not me. The traditional neighborhood school is still woven into the American education system and our culture. Most people like it. It should be preserved. But there is not much time left to do that here.

By   |  07:32 PM ET, 02/01/2012


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