front page - editorial archives  - search - community 
Native Intelligence
Why do charters get special rules?
(Published August 22, 2005)

By DIANA WINTHROP

I carefully read the news reports, and I must admit I giggled. I confess I feel guilty for laughing at failure and my possession of an "I told you so" attitude. It is a major character flaw.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that I am not a strong advocate of the public charter school movement. I find the focus and drain on quality public education terribly sad and very frustrating.

I shouldn't revel in the failure of such a grand experiment, but recent reports revealed some bad news: academic achievement for the public charter schools is no better than traditional public schools.

Good grief! Excuse me for having such a nasty attitude, but where are the supporters of public charter schools, rallying behind their institutions? The public charter movement promised D.C. residents the moon. It lied. It has given us just a little progress (as have traditional public schools), though the public hue and cry over the lack of public charter school progress barely exists.

Surprisingly, parents have been quiet. Is it an indication that they see progress in other ways and testing is not a real indication of improvement? School board members have not been available for comment and Superintendent Clifford Janey apparently doesn't believe he needs to respond to the press or to criticism from citizens. Education advocates have been strangely silent, as well, regarding the results of the academic benchmarks required by federal law.

In the next few weeks, approximately 16,000 D.C. public school students will begin classes at more than 40 public charter schools. Roughly 60,000 students (and, likely, even fewer) will begin classes at traditional public schools.

Recent reports on public charter schools show only eight of 31 charter school campuses have made "adequate yearly progress" required by the No Child Left Behind law. Ten schools failed and the rest were not obligated to report because they did not have a sufficient number of students who took the standardized tests.

Something is terribly wrong. It is indicative of a growing case of inequality and unfairness. Shouldn't we be demanding more of both public charters and traditional schools? This is a classic example of unfairness: we allow traditional public schools only three years to meet federal academic benchmarks, while charter schools have five years. Traditional public schools also are penalized by being required to allow students to transfer to better schools. Principals and teachers in regular public schools have three years until they can be fired; in charter schools, they have five years.

Am I the only person who sees something is not right?

Charter schools are designed to offer parents an alternative to failing traditional public schools. Charter school advocates tout the creativity and flexibility of charter schools. Why can't we offer the same in traditional public schools?

The current bad news has renewed interest in making sure that charter schools are under more scrutiny. Why is it that public charters are only revoked for financial mismanagement and not academic failures? Why is it that we continue to spend almost $2 million for a public charter school board and staff? Why do we have two chartering boards, though the D.C. Board of Education recently temporarily stopped issuing new charters?

D.C. Public Charter School Board spokeswoman Nona Richardson defended the charter school test results by indicating that the chartering board looks at the schools on an individual basis, and that they look to see progress over time -- not as a snapshot. If a traditional public school even once tried to defend its poor test results using the same approach, there would be calls for firings.

I can't restrain my growing feeling that special treatment for charter schools is part of the Bush administration's effort to destroy public education or, rather, a far grander scheme by the Republican Party, which has shown its growing disdain for public education.

The academic benchmarks should be the same for all schools -- traditional public schools and public charter schools -- but changing the federal requirements won't likely happen anytime soon.

Welcome to the new world of inequality -- and fairness be damned.

***

Diana Winthrop is a native Washingtonian. Contact her at diana@thecommondenominator.com.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator