Selected readings on US charter schools
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been a full-throated supporter of charter schools, of which there are about 180 in New York City. The debate over how the next mayor should handle charters has been part of the campaign from the very beginning.
Earlier this month, charter school advocates rallied in Manhattan to protest the more skeptical views of the Democratic mayoral nominee, Bill de Blasio. He says that charter schools can be improved, which is true. He has also argued, much to the delight of the teachers’ union, that the Bloomberg administration has shortchanged traditional public schools and “favored” charters, which receive public funds and free space in public school buildings even though they operate independently of the school system.
And he says, again rightly, that some charter schools serve too few English-language learners and others who might need special education courses or are difficult to teach. But here he is at risk of oversimplifying: The problem of assigning students with special needs to stronger schools afflicts the entire system. It is a mistake to single out charter schools, many of which are high-performing, for shortcomings that are common across the board.
By contrast, the Republican nominee, Joseph Lhota, seems to see charter schools as the answer, or at least an important one, to New York’s educational needs. “The only problem with New York City charter schools,” he says, “is that there are not enough of them.” He has called for doubling the number of charter schools, which currently educate about 70,000 of the city’s 1.1. million students. About 50,000 children, he says, want seats but can’t get them. He has accused Mr. de Blasio of plotting to “annihilate” charter schools, thus shortchanging the poor and minority children who make up an overwhelming majority of charter students.
In all the bombast it is worth making two points. First, there’s little question that New York has one of the nation’s most successful charter school systems. A study published earlier this year shows that the typical New York City charter student learned more reading and math in a year than his or her public school peers.
The second point is that the next mayor can improve the system, in part by shutting down poorly performing schools, awarding new charters only to groups with proven track records, and smoothing relations between charters and traditional schools by making sure “co-locations” take place only in buildings big enough to house both.
The teachers’ union is never going to fall in love with charter schools because a vast majority of them are not unionized, and they have real financial advantages because their work force is younger and more transient and their payrolls, pensions and medical costs are lower. Many charters plow these savings back into education — hiring social workers, lengthening the school day, or staffing classrooms with more than one teacher as a way of helping disadvantaged children. Whoever is mayor should encourage this practice. Mr. de Blasio says he would charge rents based on each school’s ability to pay and insists that this would not hurt programs or cause layoffs. But it could penalize high-performing schools that have demonstrably helped poor children.
Mr. de Blasio is on firmer ground when he says that charter schools, which choose their students by lottery, need to do a better job of recruiting and retaining special education students, English-language learners and others who tend to be underrepresented in the charter school population. If charter schools hope to expand — some already enroll 15 percent or more of the students in their districts — they will need to behave more like traditional schools in their admissions policies. That means making room for “over-the-counter” students, among them transients and the poor, who show up at the schoolhouse door in the middle of the year.
Traditional public schools must do a better job of this, too. A new study from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University found that tens of thousands of new immigrants, special needs students and poor students are disproportionately assigned to struggling New York high schools that have little chance of helping them. The city has already begun to open school seats for these children — but clearly more needs to be done.
Source: The New York Times – Editorial