August 24, 2011: Despite the success of charter schools, especially here in Los Angeles, or perhaps because of it, misconceptions abound about what charter schools are and what they do. A recent piece in City Watch by Janet Denise Kelly echoed many of these common misunderstandings, following them to the wrong conclusions.
Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that are open to all students who apply. The only reason they have admission lotteries is that many charter schools have more students applying than they can serve. Unlike exclusive private schools or district magnet schools, charter public schools are prohibited from "cherry picking," or selecting "the best" students. In fact, research has shown that charters serve diverse students with a wide range of needs.
I start by highlighting charter school lotteries because their very existence flips on its head the argument that charter schools are growing for the sake of growth. The fact is, new charter schools have opened in direct response to overwhelming demand from parents for better educational options in their communities. For too long, families in south LA haven't had many options if they were dissatisfied with their local traditional public school. They could pay a steep price for a private school or they could fight to get into one of LAUSD's exclusive magnet programs, which might be a long bus ride away.
Charter schools offer another public education option to parents, who are seizing upon the successes that the schools are generating. These parents, who know their children best and who deserve to have a choice in their children's education, are flocking to charters in large numbers.
I invite Janet Denise Kelly to visit some local charter schools, to get to know the parents who have chosen that option for their children, the teachers who have chosen to work there and the passionate educators lead these schools. Many of the teachers and administrators at charter schools started their careers in LAUSD and will tell you that they still consider themselves very much a part of the public school system, but in a way that allows them to focus on the needs of students, not adults.
And that focus on students is paying off. In addition to offering highly innovative programs that cater to individual student needs, charter schools are becoming known for generating high levels of learning, especially in south Los Angeles. The California Charter Schools Association released our first Portrait of the Movement this year to dive deep into charter school performance across the state.
As with all public schools, academic performance of charters statewide varies across schools. However, one of the most exciting trends we saw in the research was that charter schools are breaking the link between poverty and low performance in ways that are fundamentally challenging the notion that we cannot systematically address the achievement gap in California.
Charters in the state serving large numbers of low income students are far outperforming traditional public schools serving similar demographics of students. In fact, our research found that the correlation between poverty and low academic performance is one fourth as strong in charter schools as it is in traditional public schools. Charter schools in LAUSD are showing particularly strong results, with 27 schools identified as being in the top tier of "high-impact" public schools.
The full data sets and analyses are online, including an interactive map that allows you to look at this issue from a parent's eye view, comparing the schools that are in that individual's immediate area. I encourage you to review the data, which provides both cause for celebration and a call to action to turn around low-performing schools - whether they are traditional public schools or charter schools.
No one said education reform would be easy, but I'm sure we can all agree that closing the achievement gap is critically important. In December, the LAUSD board and the charter community signed on to the Quality Schools Compact, saying that we would work together towards the goal of every student in Los Angeles having access to a high-quality public education. Let's stop the "us vs. them" debates once and for all - we've got work to do.