Thriving Charter Schools Need Fairness, Not Favors

In Harlem, we're beginning to see how parental demand and academic results can shape a school system and create better educational opportunities for the City's kids. The emerging Harlem "education market"--in which student achievement is the coin of the realm--is a good thing, but four factors remain that could threaten its ultimate success--and its replication citywide.

Public school parents in Harlem are clearly stating that they want high quality schools for their kids; it's clear in the demand for charter schools, which have been proven to raise student achievement. Today they serve over 20% of public school students in Harlem. Moreover, in last year's random admissions lotteries, about 11,600 students entered drawings to fill about 2,000 open seats in Harlem alone. Meanwhile, at many of the traditional public schools in Harlem, demand is going the other way--and marketing isn't the reason why. PS 241 enrolled fewer than 20 kindergarten students this fall, as local families turned to other options for their children's education. Such schools have taken note and are courting parents as never before, with promises of quality education. Their urgency is understandable, since low enrollment can be a factor in decisions to close a struggling city school.

District schools, in other words, are experiencing some charter-style accountability. What will happen when all public schools are expected to show academic results and parent satisfaction? From what we're seeing in Harlem, the answer is: schools either improve or shut down, eventually leaving higher-quality options for parents.

Looking ahead, however, there are four major challenges to this vision of a well-regulated "education market" within public education.

One challenge will come from the idea that parents are simply not savvy or informed enough to choose the best school for their child. State Senator Bill Perkins (D-Harlem) openly argues as much: "My concern is that [parents] are being sold something that is hype, that is all about creating more demand," he said recently. Senator Perkins supports a moratorium on new charter schools as well as a variety of measures that will roll back existing, successful schools.

The senator must not believe the academic studies of New York City charter schools, which have rigorously and repeatedly confirmed the schools' positive effects on student learning. His paternalistic view also strains credulity: despite a full decade of experience with charter schools, Harlem parents are being snookered into choosing them? The ideological threat from the legislature to constrain parents' choice and opportunity must be seen for what it is and rejected.

On the other side of the debate is a second challenge: the temptation toward favoritism at the New York City Department of Education.

Under Chancellor Joel Klein, the Department has been a charter school supporter like no other, giving them political support, certain services, and in many cases, access to district buildings. The Chancellor took these steps in order to seed the education marketplace. Although New York City charter schools still receive fewer resources than district schools, this support has allowed them to become a model for the nation and create, at least in Harlem, a cycle in which both district and charter schools are upping their performance.

Yet, in addition to creating the marketplace, the Department is also responsible for regulating charter schools and the district schools they compete with. It must make decisions about authorizing new schools, reauthorizing existing ones, closing district and charter schools that fail to perform, and allocating space within a crowded system. It must also take steps to give district schools the resources to compete on fair terms.

As charter schools become more numerous and prominent, choosing sites and other decisions will become more frequent, and difficult. Having become identified with charter schools and rightly invested in them, it is only human nature for the Department to be tempted (even if only unconsciously) to tilt the playing field in favor of charter schools, or certain charter schools, or the small schools they created. That would be a mistake.

Educational quality is best served when all schools are held evenly accountable, rising or falling on their own merits as judged by parents and objective, defensible criteria that take demographic differences fully into account. To that end, the Department of Education's decisions must be scrupulously transparent, consistent, and even-handed--and they must take steps to ensure that even the appearance of favoritism doesn't exist. None of this will be easy given the controversy these decisions will engender and the complexity of evaluating if and why a school is failing.

The third challenge has to do with charter school demographics and the proportion of English Language Learner (ELL) and special education students they serve. While the UFT's report on this issue had some statistical challenges and did not accurately reflect the reality in today's schools, it does not change the fact that charters must be better at recruiting and serving ELL and special education students.

The Department has taken a good first step by introducing the universal application for charter schools, and the New York City Charter School Center has begun looking at the possibility of creating an electronic application. Equally, the Center has continued to press for legislation that would allow charter schools the right to give preference to ELL and special education students, as well as other at-risk categories. At the same time, we have started to explore how charter schools can form a consortium to provide more specialized settings for the most severely disabled children. Finally, if there are charter schools that have been counseling out students, New York's charter school authorizers should use their extensive oversight powers to put a stop to that behavior.

The final challenge comes from the failure of New York State's testing system, which experts have acknowledged is inflating results across the board. If we are to judge schools by student performance, we must do everything to make sure that increases in performance reflect increases in learning across the curriculum. Making the testing system more rigorous and better suited to its task will not be politically popular, but it is a step that Commissioner Steiner and the Board of Regents must act on. All indications are that they will soon.

Parents are pointing the way toward the great public schools of New York City; they are doing their part. Those in charge of these schools must also do theirs, letting neither ideology nor politics get in the way