Measuring School Choice

Commentary, Education, Peter Holle

Back in 1991, the first charter school in the United States opened in Minnesota. Today more than 600 operate in 25 states, with several thousand predicted by the year 2000. In Canada, only Alberta has moved to accommodate charter schools, and nine have opened.

How are they doing? A two-year study by the Hudson Institute gathered data from 9,000 students, parents and teachers involved in charter school programs. Released in June, the study awarded these alternative schools high marks and found "satisfaction levels that are wide and deep" among their stakeholders.

What is a charter school? They differ from traditional public schools in one important respect-parents and teachers run them, free from the education department’s day-to-day oversight. Funding still comes from the public purse.

The Hudson study reported a nearly unanimous verdict from the primary players in these schools: "their focus is on education, their students are flourishing academically and they are havens for children of all races, backgrounds and abilities who were not thriving in conventional schools."

This last fact is important because charter school opponents have regularly predicted that they would siphon off the "best and the brightest", leaving other students behind in underachieving conventional schools. The new study discovered that almost 50% of charter school enrollees came from minority groups, versus only 34% in regular public schools.

Parents ranked charter schools higher on every indicator, and fewer than 4% intend to transfer their children next year. They cited small class sizes, higher standards, better teachers, and more opportunity for parental involvement. Nearly half of parents surveyed who said their children once performed "poorly" claim they are now doing "excellent" or "above average" work.

Only 3% of teachers wanted to teach elsewhere next year. Over 60% rate their salaries as the same or higher than in public schools, and 98% report "much success" or "some success" in raising student achievement. A strong majority of students praised their charter school experience as superior to previous learning, describing as the top three features "good teachers", "they teach till I learn it" and "they don’t let me fall behind".

Minnesota, one of the most progressive American states, is aggressively embracing the charter school model. The Governor there was so frustrated by the public system’s dismal performance-over half of high school students don’t graduate. -that he vetoed a public education bill when it limited the number of charter schools. In July, Minnesota’s legislature caved in and authorized an unlimited number, despite hostile lobbying from teachers’ associations.

So far eighteen American states offer voucher programs, where parents can send their children to any school, public, private or charter and that number will continue to rise dramatically.

Helen Raham of the Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education in Kelowna, B.C., welcomes the Hudson Institute’s findings. She says charter schools provide more options for students, especially those who are struggling, more parental involvement, site-based decision-making, opportunities to innovate and accountability for results.

Canada’s public school monopoly model, with its uneven results, has started to wobble and shed pieces. Alberta, the province whose students perform best in Canada is expanding their use. In Moncton, N.B., a school opened last fall that is totally owned and operated by a real-estate firm. The government controls the curriculum, but saves big on construction and management costs. Two public schools in York Region, north of Toronto, now offer a traditional classroom, with reading through phonics, teacher-guided instruction, a subject-based curriculum and a discipline code, programs typical in charter schools.

Charter schools are but one piece of the movement towards better schools.

The magic elixir is choice. Without it, educational improvement remains stifled by the politics of the status quo and just plain bureaucratic inertia. With it, change is driven by the normal desire of parents to have the best for their children.

Which do you think is best?