Ladner: ‘Frontier Justice’ From Parents At ‘Wild West’ Charter Schools Yields Great Results For Students
Ladner: ‘Frontier Justice’ From Parents at ‘Wild West’ Charter Schools Yields Great Results for Students
America is in desperate need of a more efficient and effective schooling system, both in terms of academic performance and economic efficiency. With half of the baby-boom generation reaching the age of 65 in just five years, there will be increased economic demands on our healthcare and pension systems. This means there is a growing need to improve the productivity of K-12 spending. Fortunately, there is potential for significantly improved results. Some state charter school sectors have already achieved globally competitive levels of achievement with relatively modest per-pupil spending.
The key to success has been accountability to parents. The highest-performing states, primarily located in New England, have levels of academic achievement that rival the top-performing nations. Massachusetts, the overall highest-performing state, compares favorably to Asian and European systems. However, the New England states are not representative of the nation’s student body as they have considerable socioeconomic advantages and spend much more than foreign systems or less affluent states. This is especially true for charter schools.
However, there are exceptions. In the Four Corners states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, charter school students consistently achieved good results across subjects and grade levels on the 2015 NAEP exam. This is despite relatively modest per-pupil spending. In Arizona, where charter schools educate a majority-minority student population, academic achievement levels are equivalent to the statewide averages of New England on all NAEP exams. Hispanic students and students receiving free and reduced-price school lunch at Arizona charter schools also perform well compared to statewide averages. Additionally, the state’s own AZ Merit exam shows charter school students outperforming district students by large margins.
Colorado charter school students outscored Massachusetts in eighth-grade math and were on par in eighth-grade reading. Low-income and Hispanic students attending charter schools in Colorado also achieved high scores. Utah charter students outscored Massachusetts in reading and had slightly lower scores in math. New Mexico charter students did not achieve the same levels as New England on the NAEP, but consistently outperformed district students by a significant margin.
Although NAEP scores only provide suggestive evidence, further statistical investigation will confirm these findings as more data is collected. It is nonetheless important to explore how modestly funded charter schools are able to achieve similar academic performance to highly advantaged states. Accountability may be a significant factor in this success. Compared to district schools, the odds of charter schools closing are much higher, indicating a greater level of accountability. Granting freedom to educators and parents through charter systems creates an environment conducive to high achievement. Paradoxically, states with cautious charter school authorization systems may impede the possibility of high achievement.
In Arizona, although charter schools have a higher closure rate than in Colorado, parents have taken the lead in holding schools accountable. Despite being granted 15-year charters, charter schools in Arizona typically close after only four years and have a small number of enrolled students in their final year. This means that Arizona charter schools are shutting down before any state officials have the opportunity to assess them. While state officials have occasionally revoked charters, these closures are only a small fraction of the total number.
The key to success in the "Wild West" involves educators having the freedom to open schools and parents being able to make quick decisions about their children’s education. If a charter school in Arizona reaches its fifth year and continues to compete with other charter, district, and private schools for enrollment, it is considered to be doing something right. Arizona has also been leading the way in statewide NAEP gains since 2009, with charter schools leading the charge.
Some people use the term "Wild West" pejoratively in discussions about charter schools, but I predict that when NAEP releases its 2017 results in October, we will see Western states like Arizona and places with liberal charter laws like Florida once again outperforming academically.
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