UW Today

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January 28, 2010

Steady growth for charter schools — and a boost from President Obama, UW center says

Thanks to President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, charter schools are being promoted as an important tool for improving U.S. public schools, according to the UW Bothell’s Center for Reinventing Public Education.


The center’s latest look at the national charter school landscape contains reasons for cautious optimism about whether the charter school sector is poised to take advantage of the opportunity. The fifth annual edition of Hopes, Fears, & Reality, published Jan. 27 by the center’s National Charter School Research Project, contains several positive indicators about charter schools’ ability to improve public education.


Robin Lake, the report’s editor, said, “By featuring charters so prominently in their education improvement plans, President Obama and Secretary Duncan have presented the charter sector with an unprecedented opportunity for growth and impact. The question is: can charter schools meet that challenge?”


Secretary Duncan’s “Race to the Top” program encourages (with financial incentives) the expansion of charter schools as part of the effort to reform the nation’s lowest-performing district schools. Thus, charters are getting a new look, particularly in states that now ban or severely limit them. In response, many states are considering legislation to expand the number of charter schools allowed.


However, the report also challenges charter school advocates and state policymakers to address shortcomings that threaten to limit the sector’s ability to become a mainstream option for American families.


The report finds that:


  • School turnarounds require much more than good intentions. They succeed only about 30 percent of the time. If charter schools are to effectively replace chronically low-performing schools, the charter school sector needs to quickly develop a stronger cadre of excellent principals and capable governing boards.
  • States and localities can use charters as a tool for better schools, but they must be prepared to close charter schools when they fail to succeed. Some states rarely close a charter school; others consider it a regular and necessary function.
  • Boston charter schools that succeed in raising test scores do not always perform well on college entrance exams. To fully demonstrate that such schools are an important new model for urban schooling, the sector may need to pay greater attention to critical thinking and other skills needed for college success.
  • Teachers unions are increasing their efforts to unionize charter schools; how charter schools respond to this challenge may be pivotal for the sector. While charter unionization has attracted much attention recently, to date relatively few charter schools have unionized. Observers remain split over the impact of unionization on charters.
  • Though there are some exceptions, most school districts that have lost and continue to lose students do not respond competitively. States could change that by increasing the incentives for school districts to develop plans to compete with charters.

Hopes, Fears, & Reality: A Balanced Look at American Charter Schools in 2009 can be downloaded at www.crpe.org.