Since the beginning of our history, Americans have been deeply divided on critical issues facing the nation. But we’ve always been united by the desire to see our children be successful. Ask any parent and they will tell you that “fine” is not good enough for their children. We want great opportunities for our children, not fine. We want great jobs, not fine. Above all, we want great schools, not fine.
A new book called “Reign of Error” – whose author, Diane Ravitch, is in the Golden State for a couple of days – tries to convince us that fine schools are good enough for our children. Simply put, fine schools will not prepare our children for life and careers in this global information age.
What our children need to know to be prepared for tomorrow is far more complex than it once was.
Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas compared every American school district to schools in 25 other industrialized nations and found that “students in suburban public school districts were not only trailing their international peers … they were barely keeping pace with the average student in other developed countries.” Only 6 percent of U.S. school districts perform well enough in math to be in the top third globally. If that’s how some of our best-prepared students are stacking up, you can only imagine what the numbers are like for inner-city, minority and low-income children.
In “Reign of Error,” Ravitch says that poor school performance is due to poverty, out-of-wedlock births and more immigrants for whom English is a second language. These are our students, and we have a responsibility to educate them. And if poverty is the root problem for our schools, then charter schools are a critical part of the answer.
As independent, tuition-free public schools, charter schools are required by law to take all types of students. Charter schools agree to be held accountable for results, and in exchange are allowed to make decisions in the best interest of their students.
Charter schools disproportionately serve low-income and minority children, the two student groups that traditional public schools are failing the most. And many charter schools in California have found the secrets to success for these children. Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes recently found that low-income students, minority students and students still learning English attending charter schools outperform their peers at district schools. California Charter Schools Association’s annual “Portrait of the Movement” report also has documented that California charter schools that serve primarily low-income students are delivering much stronger results than their non-charter counterparts.
Ravitch laments the fact that 35 percent of charter schools nationwide are run by what she calls charter school “chains,” implying that they are all for-profit businesses. In California, the vast majority of charter schools are nonprofit, single-site schools. The school networks that Ravitch refers to are nonprofit organizations running between three and a couple of dozen schools that disproportionately serve students in low-income communities and serve them incredibly well.
Take Aspire Public Schools, which runs charter schools serving predominantly low-income students in Sacramento, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and the Central Valley. Over the past four years, nearly 100 percent of Aspire graduates were admitted to a four-year college or university. Who could be against that?
Like all charter school networks in California, Aspire began as a single-site school. And as student performance continued to improve, parents and communities demanded Aspire open more schools to serve more students.
Asha Canady, once a graduate of St. Hope Academy, a Sacramento charter school, has returned to her hometown to teach English at her alma mater. Growing up, the expectation was that Asha and her twin sister would be the first in their family to attend college. Asha earned her first degree, a bachelor’s from Occidental College in Los Angeles. Following graduation, Asha signed up for Teach for America and later earned her teaching credential through Loyola Marymount University. Originally inspired by one of her St. Hope teachers, Asha says she is enjoying the impact she’s having on her students’ lives.
Results such as these demonstrate that parents need not settle for schools that are simply “fine,” but can expect that our nation provide access to the best schools found anywhere in the world.
The 50,000 families on waiting lists for California charter schools already understand the hope that charter schools represent – both for their children as well as for our society more broadly.
During her swing through California, we invite Ravitch to spend some time talking with these parents and visiting the outstanding schools they want their children to attend. Maybe then she will rediscover the potential that American students and public schools have to become not just “fine,” but truly excellent.
Nina Rees is the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Jed Wallace is the president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association.