Fordham president Checker Finn's December 11, 2007, Columbus Dispatch op-ed (see here) about how to better Ohio's charter school program generated a predictable letter to the editor from Ohio Education Association (OEA). The OEA's president, Patricia Frost-Brooks, took Finn's call for improvements as reason for ending charters altogether. While Frost-Brooks pointed out that 60 percent (actually it's 58 percent, but she was close) of the state's brick-and-mortar charter schools are in academic watch or academic emergency, she neglected to mention that 43 percent of traditional urban district schools, in the cities where charters operate, are also in the same boat. This despite the fact these schools receive 30 percent more state funding than charters and have been showered with new buildings. Least we forget, the reason Ohio has charter schools is because decades of evidence taught us that traditional district schools cannot meet the needs of all children.
Finn wasn't afraid to admit the shortcomings of Ohio's charter school system and call for improvements to the program. Imagine the progress Ohio could make if Frost-Brooks and her colleagues in the OEA would, responsibly, admit the failings of and seek ways to improve traditional public school districts.
For more insight, see:
"Charter schools need more than money," December 31, 2007, Columbus Dispatch.
"OEA needs to take care of own business," January 3, 2008, Columbus Dispatch.
And for an additional perspective, Thomas W. Carroll, chairman of the Brighter Choice Foundation (see here), Albany, N.Y., offers this:
In his commentary on the Dayton experience, "Sources of Charter School Mediocrity," Checker Finn provides one of the choice movement's rare admissions of error. His analysis is trenchant and honestly refreshing.
After recounting the lessons of Dayton's mixed experience, Finn notes that Albany is one of the few areas in the nation that has birthed a sizable charter-school sector "without as many quality woes."
As a person who was deeply involved in the adoption of New York's charter-school law in 1998 and as the chairman of the Brighter Choice Foundation, which has provided key support to eight of the nine charters in Albany, I have had a front-row seat to the Albany experience. Although I believe that Albany will, in the end, live up to Checker Finn's description, some early missteps are worth mentioning.
First, New Covenant Charter School in Albany, the very first charter school in NYS, was mishandled first by Advantage, then by Edison, and now is run by Victory Schools. New Covenant opened too fast, grew too fast, and suffered from a series of bad authorizing decisions. The State University board, first under Republican Governor George Pataki and more recently under Democrat Governor Eliot Spitzer, has failed to close this persistently low-performing school.
Second, in the interest of full disclosure, one of the newer schools didn't do so hot last year either. Eight charters are backed by the nonprofit Brighter Choice Foundation (New Covenant is the only one we do not). So far, seven of these eight are open. Of those seven, one stumbled badly and now is in the midst of a real turnaround (in year three). On that one, the lesson is no more complicated than: don't hire a weak school leader. Interestingly, though, the parents did fit Checker Finn's description of consumers who need to be more demanding. Changes were forced at the school because it wasn't up to snuff, but not by parents. A significant segment of parents backed the weak principal and were unfazed by weak test scores. As Checker Finn indicated, it wasn't top on their hierarchy of values. Dramatic action was taken--new principal, lots of new teachers and stricter discipline--but if this charter was a "mom and pop" stand-alone school, the problems likely would not have been fixed as quickly, if at all.
Overall, I think the portfolio of schools backed by Brighter Choice has a pretty good success rate thus far, but it's not flawless.
The fact that dramatic action was taken to turn around the one clunker stands in striking contrast to the Albany district's tolerance of low performance in some of its schools for a generation or more. By eighth grade, in the district schools, almost nine of every 10 minority students flunk math and reading every year.
Charter schools backed by the Brighter Choice Foundation have placed No. 1 out of Albany's public schools in reading, math, and science at the elementary level and No.1 in math and social studies at the middle-school level. Two of the elementary schools are the only charters in New York to have earned an investment-grade bond rating from Wall Street.
This fall, 20 percent of Albany's public-school students are enrolled in charter schools, slated to rise to roughly one-third in two years.
The scale has, at times, caused great controversy, but interestingly, the Albany district has begun to respond, albeit with baby steps. Just in the past year, the Albany district negotiated a 30-minute increase in the length of the school day, tried school uniforms in one school and single-gender instruction in another. Each of these reforms mimicked key features of local charter schools.
Predicting the future is a dangerous business, but here's one possible outcome: both the district and charter sectors will be forced to fix or close their weakest schools, the scale of choice will encourage an intense focus on results, and parents and their children, in the end, will be left with an enviable array of good-to-great school options. Since the charters are doing a better job of educating African-American and Latino students, the continued growth of this sector also could lead to a dramatically narrowed, if not upside-down, racial achievement gap. That's not how the Albany district looked before charters came on the scene.
All of this is a tall order, and lots of things still could go wrong in the years ahead, but one thing is clear: the status quo approach embraced for decades by the Albany district had no chance of producing these potentially transformational changes.
Just some background from the trenches here in Albany--good and bad--offered in Checker's spirit of full disclosure.