Charter School Supporters Respond to Falling Scores

With test scores falling behind in some states, charter school supporters are calling for greater scrutiny. They say weeding out under performing schools will actually strengthen the movement.

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More than half of Ohio's 300 charter schools are in academic trouble. Here in Washington, D.C., the vast majority of charter students cannot pass their standardized test. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, some supporters of charter schools fear that numbers like that are giving the charter movement a bad name.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Chester Finn of the Fordham Foundation is a fan of the charter movement. In fact, he helps authorize charter schools in Ohio. But when he found that many Ohio charters are in trouble, he made this recommendation: Make a list of the schools in deepest distress.

Mr. CHESTER FINN (Thomas B. Fordham Foundation): We estimate that about 10 percent of the schools currently in the state would probably be on that list. And then, either their sponsor has to affirmatively and transparently and publicly reauthorize them, or they'd close at the end of the current school year.

ABRAMSON: For Finn, a former education official in the Reagan administration, the call for a charter purge is not a retreat, it's a natural evolution in this movement.

Mr. FINN: You know, a fundamental part of the charter concept is that no school has a right to keep existing just because it exists today. School is not an immortal institution. It's a temporary institution that exists as long as it's delivering an education.

ABRAMSON: But Finn acknowledges that the No Child Left Behind law is also exposing weak charters. The law requires that schools make regular progress in boosting text scores. Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, says many parents were seduced by promises that charters would provide a different kind of learning environment.

Mr. TOM MOONEY (President, Ohio Federation of Teachers): But parents also need to think twice, no matter what the affect is, no matter how slick the brochure is, no matter how nice the billboards that they see. The kid will not graduate if they don't - aren't able to pass state test. And so the parents really need to be focused on that as well.

ABRAMSON: Other schools system that dove into the charter school waters are also coming up for air and looking for greater accountability. In August, Washington, D.C. superintendent Clifford Janey called for a moratorium on new charters. The city currently has 51 charter schools; they handle nearly a third of the city students. The vast majority of those schools have failed to reach academic targets in reading and math. Thomas Nida, chair of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, acknowledges the need to foster good schools and put the rest out of business. But he says…

Mr. THOMAS NIDA (Chair, D.C. Public Charter School Board): Just closing a school and throwing them out on the street and leaving it to them to figure out what to do next is not appropriate. Most of them have waiting lists of kids waiting to get in. So if a school closes with little or no notice, there's not very many options for those kids to go to another charter.

ABRAMSON: Nida wants to explore ways to revive rather than close failing schools by removing members of the board that oversee these schools or by merging them with successful schools. For many years, Gary Miron has studied the charter movement at Western Michigan University. He says the call for greater accountability is a step forward from the days when charter supporters circled the wagons against attacks by public school advocates.

Mr. GARY MIRON (Western Michigan University): The natural response was to defend all the charter schools. And now we're seeing this process now where people are more reflective and say, hey, you know, we've got to close poor performing schools.

ABRAMSON: But Miron says that demands for accountability have placed the charter movement at a crossroads. He says some schools will have to decide whether they can boost test scores without compromising their original promise to deliver individualized education.

Mr. MIRON: Many of them have unique pedagogical approaches. Many of them are working with cultural revitalization of particular subgroups in our population and so forth. They have other relevant outcomes that are really put on the sidelines once we only look at student achievement.

ABRAMSON: So as pressure grows for all schools to produce better academic results, some charter schools will clearly be headed for the chopping block.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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