A press release from Gov. Bob McDonnell’s office last month proclaimed that a charter school bill the governor signed put Virginia in the “vanguard of the National Charter School Movement.” While a certain amount of hype is to be expected in any press release, this one may have gone over the top. In considering the governor’s proposed legislation on charter schools, the General Assembly stripped out its main provision that would have allowed the State Board of Education to approve charter schools over the objections of local school boards. All that remained in the bill was a provision that the State Department of Education staff can assist local school divisions prepare charter school applications, something they can already do anyway without the bill.
A fundamental question is whether charter schools are yesterday’s solution to today’s needs. The charter school movement has lost its momentum. Dr. Diane Ravitch, one of the most influential educational scholars of the decade and long-time proponent of charter schools, was quoted in the New York Times on March 2, 2010, as saying that charter schools have proven to be no better on average than regular schools, and in many cities were bleeding resources from the public system. In accepting the National Education Association Friend of Education Award, Dr. Ravitch spoke out about “the riskiness of school choice.” She said “it undercuts public education by enabling charter schools to skim the best students in poor communities. As our society pursues these policies, we will develop a bifurcated system, one for the haves, another for the have-nots, and politicians have the nerve to boast about such outcomes.”
A comprehensive study last year by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University (www.credo.stanford.edu) of 70 percent of the students in charter schools in the United States found that about 17 percent provide superior education opportunities for their students, nearly half have results that are no different from the local public school options, and 37 percent deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools. While the report authors acknowledge the difficulties involved in opening a charter school, they insist that failing charter schools be closed.
Improving the outcomes for children in our public schools should be among our highest priorities. Siphoning some children off to go to a charter school will not bring about needed change; in fact it may delay needed systematic changes. A report funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Earning Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters,” (www.aecf.org) concluded that reading proficiency by the end of the third grade can be a make-or-break benchmark in a child’s educational development. Alternatives within the regular school framework to meet differing needs of students should be offered. That is where we should be investing our educational reform dollars. We need to move on from yesterday’s failed solutions.
Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.