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We need more urban charter schools, not fewer

Washington Examiner
March 6, 2015

By Jason Russell

A coalition of parent-led groups met in Washington, D.C. Wednesday to express frustration with urban school systems nationwide and advocate for solutions. And although the groups involved surely wouldn't like to admit it, every single one of the complaints raised could be solved or improved through expanded school choice.

Among the groups included were the Advancement Project, Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, Annenberg Institute, and the Journey for Justice Alliance. Those in attendance were angry about declining local control of schools, underinvestment, and school closures. Their predominant view was that charter schools are the great villains: They open, and traditional public schools close. Not all applicants can be admitted. Not all charters are run with people close to their neighborhoods and communities.

But charter and other non-government-run schools meet needs that public schools cannot. If a community feels its needs are not being met, government should make it easy for leaders in that community to open and operate a new school.

Among those lamenting the rise in charter schools was Judith Browne Dianis, a co-director of the Advancement Project. Browne Dianis claimed that charter schools have "no level of accountability" since they are not traditional public schools.

However, charter schools may actually be even more accountable to their students than traditional public schools.

Charter schools have to ensure families are satisfied with student performance in order to attract applications and sustain student populations. (In most jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, they are also scrutinized by local government and risk losing public money if they provide a substandard education.) In contrast, public schools are assigned students based on location, with little regard to school quality or student satisfaction.

On analyzing school effectiveness, Browne Dianis said, "We need multiple measures, because we know that students are more than one test score." Who better to assess school quality than parents, who are closest to their children and know their needs best? With school choice, parents are empowered to pick a school based on their own priorities, with educational funding that follows the child so no one gets trapped in an awful school.

School choice makes students better off wherever they decide to go. This is true regardless of the reason someone might pick a school, whether it is more academic (achievement levels and curriculum choices) or less (school safety and location).

The inability of charter schools to accept more students should not be held against them, it should be seen as reason to provide more support for charters. Nearly every state uses burdensome red tape to keep alternatives to traditional public schools from competing.

To say that charter schools are taking public resources and forcing school closures is misleading. Charter schools operate on less per-pupil funding than traditional public schools do. When students leave the traditional schools for a charter school, it allows the leftover funds to be rededicated to traditional public schools, often increasing public school funding.

Take charter schools in Michigan as an example. According to the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, "Charter schools receive a per-pupil funding of about $7,888. This is $1,198 less per student than all traditional schools statewide, and $2,576 less per student than the traditional district where the charter school is located. … Charter total student funding is never more than what the local district gets."

As for charters' inability to accommodate all applicants, the high demand for charter schools should be seen as reason to expand their numbers, not to punish them. Charter schools are more accountable than public schools, because they rely on student and parent satisfaction to thrive. Every student has different academic needs, and school choice allows them to more effectively satisfy those needs.