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Public Schools, Public Charters and Charter Schools

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A look at some of the reports on all three

I am often asked by parents and community members about the effectiveness of the charter school movement in our country and community. I typically respond that I believe choice is important and that it is their responsibility to investigate fully what the educational options are for their child. I also tell them they can find both great and poor public schools, public charter schools, and charter schools unaffiliated with local school districts. I obviously believe that our public schools offer the most well-rounded and best option for students. One might expect that from a lifelong public school employee; however, in the studies I have read, there is data that supports this opinion.

There are a many different types of charter schools. For the most part, they are either private charters that have no affiliation with the local school district or public school charters - those gaining their charter through the local school district. Sandpoint Charter School is a public school charter and by definition receives funding from the state of Idaho based upon the average daily attendance of enrolled students. Students do not pay tuition to attend. Non-public charter schools are different than public charter schools in that students typically receive a voucher to pay for the costs of their schooling. Private schools are often associated with churches or charge tuition for student enrollment.

The research continues to evolve on the effectiveness of public charters and non-public charters. Some of it is biased from both a public school perspective and the pro-charter viewpoint. I have studied research from many organizations regarding the charter school movement. Most recently I have examined the work of the Education Policy Studies Lab at Arizona State University (2005), Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability from the State of Florida (2005), an Idaho League of Women Voters report (2006), the RAND Corporation’s Charter School Operation and Performance Report in California (2003), State University of New York Charter Institute (2008), and the most recent, the Minnesota Legislative Audit of Charter Schools (2008). The latter is important given that the state of Minnesota has been a leader and an early implementer of charter schools.

The results? By and large, charter schools are viewed as a viable option for some students and families. Often, the charter school has a smaller total student population that some students and parents find more accessible.

However, in the area of student achievement, the results are mixed. By and large, students from the public schools outperform their counterparts in charter schools on standardized tests of achievement. This trend holds true in our district as well. Below are summary comments from each article.

Educational Policy Lab-“Charters have not lived up to their promise of increased achievement. This failure is surprising given that charter schools are small, with small classes, two factors known to increase student achievement.”

SUNY Charter Institute- As a general rule, charter schools outperformed their local school districts in the vast majority of cases in New York state. These schools functioned at a high level and served their students well.

OPPAGA-“On average, charter school students are academically behind when they enter their charter school compared to remaining in traditional public schools. For this reason charter school students are slightly less likely to meet grade level standards compared to students in other public schools. Most charter school students make similar annual learning gains in math and reading when compared to students in traditional public schools who start at similar developmental levels. Charter school students made similar learning gains to students in traditional schools, with the strongest relative gains occurring in high school. While student performance in most charter schools is encouraging, it is poor in one-third of charter schools.”

Idaho League of Women Voters-“Charter schools offer opportunities, like good magnet schools, to create successful and voluntary diversity. Clearly, there are some very ambitious and attractive schools being created under these policies. But too many are separate and unequal. Schools are the place in this society where children from a variety of backgrounds come together to learn, to play, and to work together. There is no comparable arena in this country where there is a vision of equality for all, no matter how much this vision may be tarnished in practice, and where people of different backgrounds interact on a daily basis. Sometimes we lose sight of that vision in the guise of choice. Some charter schools ask on their application if the applicant has ever been held back in school or had been enrolled in special education. Because the selection process itself, in some cases, is not transparent, there is no assurance that boards and staff of charter schools are not avoiding these special needs students.”

RAND-“Charter school test results were comparable or slightly lower than public schools.”

Minnesota Legislative Audit-“Minnesota’s charter schools generally post poorer test scores than regular district schools, according to the report. That finding was reinforced by this year’s state test scores (2008), which showed overall charter school test scores in both reading and math lagging far behind scores in regular schools.”

This trend holds true in our district as well, where students in our public schools have a tendency to outperform our public charter school students on ISAT tests. This has been the case most recently and has continued on the 2008 assessments.

We have very good schools in our district, intent on improvement. However, I believe we also have a good charter school, intent on improvement. In both cases, we are fortunate to have strong staff focused on the needs of their students. How successful a student might be in either type of school appears to be more dependent upon student interest and skills, parent support, student work ethic, and level of staff expertise. All of the above play a critical role in the success of students.

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Author info

Dick Cvitanich Dick Cvitanich is the Superintendent of Schools for the Lake Pend Oreille School District. He has been an educator for 33 years, and became superintendent for LPOSD in 2006. He was educated at the University of Washington where he earned a BA in History and a Superintendent's Credential. He has been married to Diane for 32 years and they have raised three sons who "taught us as much as we taught them." "I have a passion for public education and the role it plays in our democracy. In my free time I read, ski ... come to think of it, I don't have that much free time."

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