Friday, March 6, 2009

Charter World

NPR just ran a pretty interesting story about the massive charter school experiment going on in New Orleans. According to the story, more than half of New Orleans kids attend charter schools. That massive number doesn't do anything, though, to change what seem to be the recurring story lines anywhere charter schools exist. Proponents point out that the charters outperform the traditional public schools. Opponents argue that the charters aren't serving special education kids (they have half the numbers) and are pushing their "problem kids" into the public system. Sound familiar?

Here's what makes New Orleans so fascinating to follow, though. In addition to the already huge number of kids in the charter programs, NPR says the number is growing and the state superintendent of education says that he can envision a future in which all New Orleans children attend charter schools. And that's where it's really going to get interesting.

Charter school opponents argue that one of the fundamental reasons for their success is the inherent self-selection that goes into the charter school process. Even if schools are not intentionally "creaming" their students, it's hard to completely avoid simply based on the way that admissions are done at these schools. But what happens when all schools are charters? If/when that happens in New Orleans there will be no public schools that the charters would be able to push (or be accused of pushing) those problem children into. Then what?

If the schools are still successful and test scores and other measures continue to rise, then we really need to look at charters as a possibility for wider use. (The New Orleans prolilferation would also answer a lot of questions about the scalability of charters.) If, however, once all kids are in the charter system those schools may begin to resemble the current traditional school structure where some schools succeed and others don't.

While the results of this experiment are far from clear at this point, New Orleans should definitely be on the radar of charter proponents and opponents. One way or another, a lot of our questions are going to be answered.

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