National Charter Schools Week: How Charters Are Making A Difference

May 7, 2012

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By Jed Wallace

President and CEO, California Charter Schools Association

The theme for this year's National Charter Schools Week (May 6-12, 2012), "20 Years of Innovation: Proving the Possibilities," makes me reflect on how charter schools are, and have been, making a difference for the past two decades in California.

Back in the early 1990's, parents in the Bay Area community of San Carlos were dissatisfied with the public schools their kids were attending. Instead of idly sitting by, and let the chips fall where they may, they began the first steps toward establishing the California charter school movement.

It was 20 years ago, in 1992, when Governor Pete Wilson signed the California Charter Schools Act, allowing groups of educators, community members, parents, and others to explore new public education approaches, thus changing the face of public education as we knew it. That next year, the first California charter school, the San Carlos Learning Center, opened its doors; it is currently the oldest operating charter in the country. Today, California embodies the spirit of charter schools "proving the possibilities." Our state has the highest number of charter schools in the nation (982), and we serve the largest population of students (over 412,000).

It has been no accident. Throughout the past two decades, the charter movement in California has gone through ups and downs--including growth obstacles, funding inequity, and facilities challenges--yet the idea that charter schools are truly transforming public education and giving choice to parents and students has consistently gained support and momentum to push for growth, and when needed, policy reforms.

After all, growth alone does not give a full picture of the movement. Charters are also proving that we serve students better on a variety of spectrums.

For instance, this past February, CCSA published our second annual Portrait of the Movement report, which evaluates charter public schools in California on CCSA's performance framework, which renders a more nuanced and stable analysis of charter school performance over time, enabling policymakers and CCSA's membership to press for greater accountability for low performing charter schools and the expansion of schools that are demonstrating high performance on a variety of metrics.

The report's findings indicated that in 2011, charters were more likely than traditional public schools to far exceed their predicted performance based on student background, and about twice as many students were served by schools far exceeding their prediction than were served by far under-performing schools. In addition, the impact of family income on charter schools' API performance in 2011 was nearly four times less than the impact of family income on non-charters' performance; thus, accelerating the benefit of a charter education for low income students.

Also, back in October 2011, CCSA released Chartering and Choice as an Achievement Gap-Closing Reform a report detailing African-American student performance in charters across the state. Among other findings, the report indicated that charter public schools are effectively accelerating the performance of African American public school students, and that African American students are enrolled at higher percentage in California charters. Chartering and Choice profiled several schools across the state that are successfully closing the prevalent achievement and opportunity gap between African American students and those of other races.

Our charters are successfully proving this can be done.

Back in January, we had the largest charter school-parent rally in the history of the U.S., when over 5,000 families from across Los Angeles gathered in Exposition Park to demand quality schools for all students.

Also, very recently, some of our most successful charter schools announced they are expanding to other states, so that quality public education is available to families everywhere, and not confined to our own backyard.

For instance, Aspire Public Schools, which operates 34 schools in California and serves some 12,000 students here, will open several charters in Tennessee in the next few years. Rocketship Education, which focuses on a hybrid model and operates mainly in the Silicon Valley area, is also exploring opportunities for expansion in Tennessee and Milwaukee. Other states are seeing the potential of the high quality charters that call California their home, and want to be part of that.

Just in the past couple of weeks, Granada Hills Charter School in Los Angeles "proved the possibilities" by capturing the National Decathlon Championship for a second year in a row, and Environmental Charter High School was awarded the first-ever Green Ribbon Award by the U.S. Department of Education, which honored schools using green and environmentally-friendly technology and practices.

Despite being 20 years old, our movement is young, yet mighty. Our charters continue to prove the possibilities, and as we celebrate them this week, we continue to push toward policies that will allow for the movement to continue to grow and flourish in the next 20 years, and beyond.

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