National Charter Schools Week: A Time to Celebrate and a Time to Act

May 2, 2011

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By Jed Wallace, President and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association

The state of education in California is something I think about on a daily basis. Not only is it part of my job as president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association, it's also my duty as a parent and school choice advocate.

In many of our public schools, children are not getting the quality education they deserve and need to succeed. Gone are the classrooms from the 1950s and 1960s, when California's public education system was the envy of the country, and the world. Today, California ranks 43rd in the nation in fourth grade reading, and 41st in 8th grade math. In staff to student ratio, our state ranks dead last. That's hardly something to brag about.

We also have a dropout crisis. One in four students in California leaves the system, never to return. In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the most populous of the school districts in the state, the figures are even more alarming, with one in 3 students turning their backs on education for a variety of reasons.

Engaging a student is not easy, yet not impossible either. I learned this years ago as a classroom teacher in LAUSD, and it's one of the reasons why I decided to join the charter school movement. In charters, I saw the opportunity to change things, one school at a time.

Since Governor Pete Wilson signed the Charter Schools Law in 1992, the number of charter schools has grown significantly in California. This year, charters experienced their most expansive growth, opening 115 new schools. Currently, there are 912 charter schools in operation in the state, with over 365,000 students enrolled. That's the highest of any state in the nation.

But we haven't just increased in quantity. We are improving the quality of education as well.

As we commemorate this year's National Charter Schools Week, we want look back on the recent individual accomplishments of our charter schools. For instance, Aspire Public Schools, which serves nearly 10,000 students in California, was named one of the top ten most improved school systems in the world by the prestigious management firm McKinsey & Company.

Students at Granada Hills Charter High School in LAUSD captured the National Academic Decathlon Championship just this weekend, after winning the State's competition for the first time earlier this year. Rocketship Education, which operates several charters in Palo Alto, received a $1 million grant from the Broad Foundation to build on their successful "hybrid" schools, which merge online and classroom-based learning. Summit Public Schools were not only featured in the documentary Waiting for "Superman," they also were ranked as one of Newsweek's top 10 best high schools in California, and one of the top 100 best high schools in the nation. Not to mention the 22 charters in nine counties that received the Title I Academic Achievement Award for demonstrating that all students are making significant progress toward proficiency on California's academic content standards, or the five charters that were named 2010 National Blue Ribbon Schools for demonstrating dramatic gains in student achievement while serving an economically disadvantaged population of students

As a leader within the charter school movement, I want to ensure that every child in California has the choice to attend schools like these,--not just the one they are assigned to based on their zip code. Every student deserves a school that focuses on results. Our Association is actively working to grow new schools and expand existing ones, so that space is available to students in every community. In addition, we are working toward increased accountability to ensure that quality prevails in all charters.

Yet, even after 20 years of history, charters continue to face obstacles that threaten the very intent of the Charter Schools Law, which was to empower parents, teachers, students and communities to build their own schools to better meet the needs of their children.

There's constant funding inequity issues and cash deferrals during budget impasses; tense charter-district relationships; and bills in the state Legislature that threaten to strip charter schools' autonomy and flexibility, give districts the power to deny charter petitions based on financial impact, and even impose a cap on the number of schools that can open in the state over the next several years.

Our movement has come under unprecedented attack this year. The threat is very real, and if successful, the impact could have ripple effects for years to come.

Limiting school choice, and turning a blind eye to the promise of charter schools, is wrong. Our kids, even the youngest ones, can recognize a bad school when they enter one, and even at their young age, are realizing that if given the right options and choice, they can truly achieve amazing things.

The charter schools in our stated are creating an environment to cultivate to ensure that all who pass through our schools can imagine and create, and have the skills to do so to better this world. We are key to making California's public education system once again the envy of the world.

For more information on legislation against charter schools, click here.

Visit this page to download a copy of CCSA's Charter Schools Week Fact Sheet.

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