Huggy Rao and I have been reading and talking about charter schools for our scaling-up excellence project. Charter schools come in many forms, but the basic idea is that these often smaller and more focused schools are freed from many of the usual rules and constraints that other public schools face, and in exchange, are held more accountable for student achievement – on measures like standardized test scores, graduation rates, and the percentage of students who go onto college.
There is much controversy and debate about these public schools: Are they generally superior or inferior to other forms of public education? Are they cheaper or more expensive? Can the best ones be scaled-up without screwing-up the original excellence? Which charter school models are best and worst?
There is so much ideology and self-interest running through such debates that, despite some decent research, it is hard to answer such questions objectively. But one lesson is unfortunately becoming clear enough that there is growing agreement -- that my home state of California is so poor that it is a lousy place to start a Charter school of any kind. I first heard this a few weeks about from Anthony Bryk, a renowned educational researcher and the current President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He was also directly involved in starting and running one (or perhaps more -- I don't recall for sure) charter schools when he lived in Chicago.
Tony told me that California was providing such meager funding that -- although much of the charter school movement started here, there are many charter schools here, and many of the organizations that start and run these schools (called "charter management organizations") are here -- the funding that California schools receive is so meager that they are increasingly hesitant to start schools in California because the schools are condemned to mediocrity or worse.
I started digging into it, and what I am finding is distressing as both a Californian and an American. I knew that our schools were suffering, but I did not realize how much. For a glimpse, here is an interesting and detailed article on scaling-up charter schools in Education Week from last year. As Tony warned me, the charter operators described in this article are struggling to sustain quality in California and are looking elsewhere. Here is an interesting excerpt:
Aspire, in Oakland, has also focused so far only on California. It opened its first charter school in Stockton, Calif., in the 1999-2000 school year and has grown by several schools each year. The CMO operates 30 schools and has nearly doubled its enrollment, to 12,000, over the past three school years. James Willcox, the chief executive officer of Aspire, said the difficult budget climate in California is causing him and other Aspire leaders to think about opening schools outside the state. “It’s getting harder and harder to do quality schools in California,” he said, “because the funding is so painfully low, and charter schools get less per student than traditional public schools.”
He isn't exaggerating. I was shocked to see, for example, that (according to the article) the State of California is currently providing less than $6000 per pupil each year; in contrast, New York City provides $13,500. Ouch. I know that government wastes lots of money, and certainly there are inefficiencies in education. But can we afford to do this our kids and our future? As Tony suggested, California has degenerated to the point where all they can do is support a teacher for every 30 kids or so, a tired old classroom and school, and little else.
I knew it was bad, but I didn't know it was this bad. There is plenty of blame to go around -- we all have our own pet targets -- but perhaps it is time to put our differences aside and do the right things.