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.
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