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Albany Times Union


Lessons of Charter Schools

March 20, 2009

By Marcus A. Winters

President Barack Obama has given his first real sign to education reformers that he will not abandon their cause. The President stated plainly in a speech last week that his administration intends to pursue a series of reforms such as merit pay for teachers, strengthened state standards and data systems capable of tracking the performance of individual students.

But the most concrete and forceful part of the President's address related to charter schools: "I call on states to reform their charter rules, and lift caps on the number of allowable charter schools, wherever such caps are in place."

I hope our leaders in Albany, the President's fellow Democrats, were listening.

Charter schools are public schools that operate outside many of the restrictions that plague public school systems. Unlike students attending regular public schools, those attending charter schools are not assigned to them. They attend them by choice.

Essentially, charter schools operate as if they were their own school district. Most important, freed from the burdensome restrictions of a union contract, they can experiment with instructional techniques and demand more from their teaching staffs.

This fall, the number of charter schools in New York City alone is expected to increase from 78 to 104. While New York has by far the largest share, charter schools are expanding throughout the state. For instance, about one in four students in Albany attends a charter school. Two years ago, the state Legislature doubled the number of charter schools it would allow in the state. At present growth rates, we will hit the new ceiling of 200 before the end of Obama's first term.

Opponents of charter schools argue that the research about their effectiveness is mixed. As a characterization of what is happening nationally, that observation has some truth, and is not so surprising given the varying laws and circumstances under which charter schools operate. However, there is little doubt that New York's charter schools, as a group, significantly outperform regular public schools.

A study of New York City's charter schools by Stanford University economist Caroline Hoxby � one following a randomized experimental design, the "gold standard" of social science research � found strong evidence that students benefit substantially when they attend a charter school.

To put the results into context, one year of attending a charter school had a positive impact on a student's math proficiency that was about half-again greater than prior research found had resulted from a 10 percent reduction in the size of the student's class.

The opportunity that charter schools provides to parents and kids has spurred more demand than the capped number of charter schools can satisfy. Currently, tens of thousands of the students in New York City sit on waiting lists in hopes that they might soon be able to enroll in a charter school. Why should we continue to deny them access to schools that will improve their chances of excelling?

Charter schools are an essential part of real education reform. If the President knows this, our leaders in Albany must as well. They must not let other considerations restrict students' access to this proven alternative.

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