How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Charter schools not an education cure-all

The most important institution in America is our public school systems. It is the primary vehicle for providing individuals with the opportunity to make something of themselves and the linchpin of our nation's shared sense of citizenship. Our best public schools are still probably the best in the world. Yet reams of statistics reveal that too many of our schools, especially in urban areas with high levels of poverty, are failing abysmally.

There can be little disagreement that millions of American students are not learning the skills they need to succeed in today's world. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, two out of three eighth-graders can't read and are not proficient in math and nearly three out of four 8th- and 12th-grade students cannot write proficiently. Further, the African-American and Hispanic dropout rates are close to 40 percent compared to the national average of 27 percent.

Frequently the recommended antidote to the failures of our public schools is charter schools -- public schools of choice, meaning that families choose them for their children. They have grown dramatically in numbers since the first was started in 1992. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in 2015-16 there were 6,800 charters schools enrolling more than 2.9 million students. Enrollment in charter schools has increased six-fold in the past 15 years. In some American cities more than half of the students are attending charter schools. In New Jersey we now have 92 state-approved charter schools enrolling almost 40,000 students.

For more than three decades, I have opposed charters because I believed that, unless their admission policies mimic those that were employed by the Emily Fisher Charter School in Trenton (where they actively recruited disadvantaged kids to include in the applicant pool), they undermine our public schools by siphoning off the better students and most involved parents. It always troubled me that by opposing charters for the larger good of public education, I was possibly denying some children in some failing traditional public school the opportunity for a better education.

However, the result of studies of student performance at charter schools is mixed and varies from state to state. There is no consistent evidence that students in charter schools significantly outperform students in more traditional public schools in the same district. Most charter schools do not outperform public schools, and only 1 in 5 charter schools are highly successful. The most highly publicized evaluation of charter schools was a 2013 sixteen-state study conducted by the Center for Research and Education Outcomes (CREDO) which found that three-fourths of the students are performing either worse or no better than regular public schools.

The New Jersey CREDO results were contentious. The Education Law Center reported "N.J. charters performed only negligibly better than traditional public schools" [and that] "the vast majority of charters perform at similar levels to, or worse than, district public schools." This was in spite of the fact that in Newark (the only school in the CREDO study) significantly outperformed district schools in both reading and math.

A more recent study of the D.C. school voucher program, a school choice experimental project, found that "students who attended a private school through the program performed worse on standardized tests than their public school counterparts who did not use the vouchers." On the other side of the ledger, a recent Florida study found that students who attend charter high schools are more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college, stay in college and earn more in the their mid-20s.

The uneven results are in spite of the fact that charter schools generally serve a lower percentage of special needs and at-risk children than the traditional public schools. This is not to say that there are not excellent charter schools, like the highly acclaimed North Star Academy Charter School in Newark and the Foundation Academies in Trenton, which have performed at a high level for a number of years. However, given the lack of consistent across-the-board data in support of charters, I remain dubious of them. I feel they hurt our public schools which, according to Nikole Hannah-Jones in an article in The New York Times Magazine, entitled Common Sense, "remains one of the few institutions where Americans of different classes and races mix."

This does not mean that that I do not feel they our public schools are not in need of major reform - they are. However, I do not feel that charter schools are necessarily the best reform strategy. I'd prefer a focus on best education practices, staff training, parent education programs, smaller classes and providing all children with decent school facilities.

For these reasons, I support Senator Shirley Turner's Bill (S-2887/A-4351) which would place a three-year moratorium on expanding enrollment in charter schools. I'd offer a friendly amendment which would allow current highly performing charters to expand a grade at a time during the moratorium. During the three-year moratorium I'd like to see a serious study done to determine what approaches, if any, have worked in charters schools with similar populations to traditional public schools. The decision regarding expanding charter enrollment in New Jersey should be evidence-based.