The grand slam for New Jersey charter schools

It is difficult to overstate the findings from CREDO’s just-released study of charter schools in New Jersey. The stakes could not have been higher, and the results could not have been better, especially in Newark.

Charter opponents will find these results impossible to dismiss.

But first, consider the forces aligned against the charter sector in the Garden State. Charter schools are frequently under attack across the nation, but the aggression has been particularly acute in New Jersey of late.

Critics of reform in Newark accuse charter supporters of trying to “privatize” education and worse. Nearly as fierce has been the assault from anti-charter forces in the suburbs.

Then there are the many powerful establishment organizations—membership associations and so forth—that oppose charters to the hilt.

I seriously, if unwittingly, raised the stakes in recent days. I pointed out the predictably dismal turnaround results from the federal SIG program, arguing that a charter new-start and replication/explanation strategy was far likelier to lead to more high-performing seats.

Then I wrote a piece for the NY Daily News, in which I put the Newark school district on notice, arguing that charters—which provide far better alternatives for the city’s disadvantaged kids—could replace the district.

Finally, CREDO, a Stanford-based research center, was apparently nearing the conclusion of a long-term study of New Jersey charters.

Several years ago, this organization famously found that nationwide, charter results were far less roseate than the sector’s most strident backers had believed.

Had the New Jersey results come back negative, or even middling, charter opponents of all stripes would’ve been emboldened. They would’ve launched a new frontal assault on charters, likely advocating for a statewide moratorium and charters’ outright and permanent banishment from suburban communities.

Defenders of the status quo would’ve said that turnarounds were just as good—maybe even better!—than charter new-starts and replications and therefore deserved even more money.

Backers of the district system would’ve railed against the claim that charters could replace the traditional urban school system.

But New Jersey charters hit a grand slam.

Proof of the enormous value of smart chartering continues to grow. And more importantly, we can say with growing confidence that it is time to replace the turnaround craze with charter new-starts and replications and replace the urban district with a charter-based system.

The CREDO results speak for themselves:

“The charter school results presented in this report place New Jersey among the highest performing states studied to date.”

And what about CREDO’s previous nationwide study that found equivocal charter benefits?

“These (New Jersey’s) school-level results are notably more positive than the analogous pattern presented in the 2009 report.”

Given that CREDO has studied dozens of states and cities and has forthrightly reported poor charter results when warranted, these statements are powerful. But dig into the specifics and you’ll find even more reason for cheer.

Statewide, for every year that a student is in a New Jersey charter, she learns several additional months’ worth of math and reading when compared to her traditional public-school peers.

Urban charters are substantially outperforming traditional urban public schools. But suburban charters are also outperforming their peers.

Both new charters and those open for years “have positive and significant effects on learning gains in both reading and math.”

For those of us deeply concerned about the achievement gap, the findings are especially heartening: Low-income Hispanic and low-income African-American students show significantly better performance in charters.

But the most jaw-dropping finding, the one that shows just how valuable chartering can be and the one that demonstrates the full potential of chartering when it is pursued wisely, comes from Newark:

For every year a Newark student is in a charter, she advances seven and a half months in reading and a full year in math compared to her traditional public school peers.

That is astounding.

Charter opponents will find these results impossible to dismiss. The methodology is rigorous, and much of the anti-charter world has pointed to previous studies by this organization to discredit charters. They’ll be hard-pressed here to fault the message or the messenger.

The reason I find these results so exciting and so gratifying is because they show what is possible when the right charter strategies are employed. When I worked for the New Jersey Department of Education, we were careful to allow only the best, most-prepared schools to open. We enabled the very best charters to grow (like the KIPP TEAM and North Star campuses in Newark). And we were willing to close those that weren’t living up their responsibilities.

For this, state education commissioner Chris Cerf, Governor Chris Christie, and the great staff at NJDOE deserve enormous credit. They have built practices and a mindset that will ensure these superb results only get better in the years to come.

And of course, much is owed to the dedicated charter teachers and leaders who do the real work of educating boys and girls every day.

I’m sure this new data will do little to change the minds of those who reflexively oppose charters or automatically defend the failed urban-district system.

But for the rest of us, the pattern is becoming too clear to ignore.

Said simply:

The traditional urban school system is broken. It cannot be fixed. It must be replaced.

Smart chartering is the answer.

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