05 May 2010

The charter school debate

We here at YorkCounts think educational achievement and opportunity in York County should be a concern for every citizen  regardless of what school district they live in, and we've placed a pretty big bet that the York Academy Regional Charter School will be a step in the right direction.

We have to acknowledge, though, that the question of whether charter schools are some kind of magic cure for urban education is far from settled. Three recent news articles show how complicated the issues are.

The New York Times ran a 3,600-word story May 1 that examines the mixed performance of charter schools nationwide. Yes, there are some success stories, where charter schools have helped students in urban districts outperform their public school peers. We believe the YorkCounts professionals who are involved in the York Academy will make it one of the success stories. But, one recent comphrehensive study puts the number of successful schools at about a third of the nation's 5,000 charter schools. But about half do no better and about a third do significantly worse. From the story:
"... the challenge of reproducing high-flying schools is giving even some advocates pause. Academically ambitious leaders of the school choice movement have come to a hard recognition: raising student achievement for poor urban children - what the most fervent call a new civil rights campaign - is enormously difficult and often expensive."
And we also have to acknowledge that charter schools aren't the only potential answer. In Florida, a program to promote school choice for poor families has the potential, according to education policy analyst Adam Schaeffer of the libertarian Cato Institute, to "revolutionize K-12 education in the Sunshine State." Schaeffer made the argument in an op-ed that appeared in the Wall Street Journal April 30.

Here's how the program works: Businesses can to donate to a nonprofit scholarship organization that helps poor families pay private school tuition. Businesses can claim dollar-for-dollar tax credits. A change to the enabling law would expand the program so that more money could be donated and businesses could claim a broader array of tax credits, with the goal of making more scholarships available. Evidence to assess the program's impact is still being developed; the program was created in 2001. But Schaeffer is optimistic.
"Florida's scholarship program appears to be the first statewide private school choice program to reach a critical mass of funding, functionality and political support. As an ever increasing number of students in Florida take advantage of the scholarship program, other states will find it hard to resist enacting broad-based school choice."
Finally, from the Philadelphia Inquirer last month comes a story about the revival in a West Phildelphia neighborhood near the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The Penn Alexander School, a charter school, opened in 2001 in University City. The school was in a blighted section of the city that was full of crime and rowdy and transient college students and mostly devoid of middle-class families. Penn initiated an overhaul of the neighborhood, and the charter school was part of the plan.

And now?

The school is attracting a diverse student body. Professionals are moving in. And when they have kids, they stay - for the school. Businesses are popping up (including a gourmet grocery store). Streets are cleaner and safer.
"'The (area around the school) has turned ... into a stable family neighborhood, with kids on almost every street,' said Andrew Meloney, the West Philadelphia planner for the City Planning Commission."
So yes, we bet on the York Academy, and we're confident that the folks running the school will do it right. It won't solve every problem. But wouldn't it be cool to see the Northwest Triangle turn around like the neighborhood in West Philly?

- Dan Fink


Steve said...

This is an interesting summary of articles. I admit I'm a bit skeptical about private school choice, being a product of a pretty good public school. And I still saw plenty of racial and socioeconomic prejudice during my school days, as we do today.

Are there studies that examine programs like Florida's that examine the social-acceptance level of lower economic class students in private schools under such choice programs? If this factor can be dealt with effectively, then I would feel better about it. Perhaps dealing with stigmatization is considered a reasonable tradeoff for a higher-quality educational experience, but it seems a high price to pay, nonetheless.

YorkCounts said...

Thanks for your comment, Steve. It's worth asking whether kids from poor families have that issue to deal with. I don't know the answer.

Anonymous said...

If the new proposed baccalaurate charter school follows its own proposal to only accept city children whose parents are dedicated to supporting and encouraging them academically, then the prospect for those children succeding is more likely.
Parental interest and support can make the difference between success and failure.

The reason for so many city children failing is lack of parental interest, good parental role models, structure and consistency in family life, and unfavorable peer pressure.

If the above mentioned problems are mimimalized, then chances for the children to succeed is maximized.

YorkCounts said...

Anonymous, you are absolutely right about parental involvement. The York Academy folks certainly hope that emphasis yields positive results. It's also encouraging that the United Way has received some national funding to develop a program to help parents in the city school district be more engaged. We can't give up on any of these families, whether their kids go to the charter school or stay in the traditional public system.