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K. Lloyd Billingsley - Contributor
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K. Lloyd Billingsley is Editorial Director for the Pacific Research Institute and has been widely published on topics including on popular culture, defense policy, education reform, and many other current policy issues. [go to Billingsley index]

Ten Years After: Progress and Opposition in Charter Schools
[K. Lloyd Billingsley] 7/17/03

In 1993 California began allowing charter schools, deregulated schools within the government system that gain freedom from most regulations in return for meeting the goals of their founding charter. According to a Rand study released June 30, charter schools provide good news to a state that badly needs it.

Charter School Operations and Performance: Evidence from California, requested by the state's Legislative Analyst's Office, finds that charter schools keep pace or slightly outperform conventional government schools in reading and math achievement. They do this, however, with less funding, and with less experienced teachers.

While schools that convert to charter status perform about the same, start-up charter schools outperform conventional government schools in student test scores. The Rand study also found that elementary charter schools have more instruction time in fine arts and foreign languages than conventional government schools. Charter school teachers, though less likely to possess a credential, are more likely to participate in professional development such a mentoring programs.

Charter school students are more likely to be African American and less likely to be Hispanic, Asian, or white. The Rand study's finding explodes the charge that charters would become elitist suburban academies. The predominance of African Americans in these schools is another confirmation of the need for alternatives from the government system.

There are now about 400 charter schools serving approximately 150,000 students in California, not many in a state with 35 million people, more than seven million students, and more than 1,000 school districts. It should be recalled that the original legislation allowed only 100 schools and that another bill, backed by the California Teachers Association, wanted only 50. If charter schools can improve student achievement, as now seems clear, it makes little sense to limit their numbers. A case here in the capital shows why opposition remains.

Sacramento High School was a low performing school that the local board shut down. St. HOPE, non-profit company headed by Sacramento High graduate and former NBA star Kevin Johnson, drafted a charter that would have divided the school up into smaller academies. Parental support proved strong, and donors included local companies, a private law school, UC Davis Medical Center, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The school would be responsible for results and initially the teachers would not be union members.

That is why the teacher union fought to block a school that served the area's neediest students. The union circulated horror stories during the petition process, then went shopping for a judge that would shut down the project on flimsy and dubious grounds. The backers have appealed and are moving ahead.

The union power play shows the lengths to which reactionary forces will go to block reform and preserve the status quo. In these quarters, despite rhetoric to the contrary, the welfare of students always takes a back seat to power and control.

As the Rand study shows, charter schools have made for some improvement. But it should be remembered that charter schools were themselves a response to increased demand for educational choice. Legislators should make it easier for charter schools to thrive but work toward full choice in education for all students as a matter of basic civil rights.

copyright 2003 Pacific Research Institute



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