The past two Fridays, NJTAG (New Jersey Teacher Activist Group)--an educational activist organization I am affiliated with-hosted screenings of The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, a documentary created by educators from New York City which provides a counter-narrative to the one popularized by Davis Guggenheim's 2010 film, Waiting for Superman. The plot of Superman revolves around a handful of students applying to various lotteries of charter schools, which they hope will save them from their awful neighborhood public schools.
The "Inconvenient Truth" is that charter schools are by no means the magical solution to America's educational woes. The largest comparative quantitative study of school performance shows that 17% of charter schools out-perform their public school counterparts; approximately half perform on the same level; and 37% "deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools" (Stanford University Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) 2009 nationwide charter school study, www.credo.stanford/edu). Additionally, charters are often under-represented when it comes to special needs students (National Center for Learning Disabilities, http://www.ncld.org) and English Language Learners (http://www.ncspe.org/publications_files/OP188.pdf), which raises equitable access questions.
However, while we are on the topic of "truths"--another truth is that charter schools have cropped up in unprecedented numbers across the country, and both our state and the federal government have thrown their weight behind them. New Jersey has seen unprecedented numbers of charter schools opening in the past year, and the forecast only shows more coming.
As educational entities that receive public funds, charter schools should be held accountable to not only the state, but also to the local communities, parents, and students they serve. Across the nation, some states are doing a better job of this than others. I actually come from a charter school background--two of the three schools in which I have taught have been charters. But in California, the schools I worked in were both approved by and held accountable to their districts and were required by the state to adopt non-discriminatory policies if they accepted public funds.
To pro-charter folks who might say that being accountable to the local district would spell doom for charters, I offer up the evidence of San Diego, where a full ten percent of school-age children attend charter schools (about three times the national average). The charter schools there must be approved by their districts (with an appeal process to county and state levels) and are accountable to the school districts in which they are located. For example, at the school where I worked the majority of my teaching career, we had an audit once a year, where district representatives would investigate every aspect of the school from financials to academics to board governance. At the conclusion of the audit we would be told both areas of excellence and areas that needed growth. The rigorous process kept the school extra-transparent at every level, which did nothing but add to my school's credibility.
In new Jersey, this level of accountability does not exist yet. But two bills are being introduced into the Senate in the hopes of correcting that. Senate bill 2443 will require local approval for charter schools, and Senate bill 3005 will seek to increase charter transparency as well as ensure representation in terms of income levels, special needs students, and English Language Learners. Read about SB2443 here: http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2010/Bills/S2500/2243_I1.PDF and read about SB3005 here: http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2010/Bills/S3500/3005_I1.PDF.
These bills make sense for voters on both sides of the charter issue; the bill has bi-partisan sponsorship and support in the Senate, and nearly three quarters of New Jersey voters support it. To drive the point home for legislators, take five minutes this week and call or email our senators to reiterate our support for the bills:
Senator Diane Allen
Senator Thomas Kean
(908) 232-3673 (Westfield)
Senator Theresa Ruiz