A recent study by researchers at Western Michigan University revealed an unpleasant side of the charter school movement. Charter schools are privately operated schools that receive tax dollars from the state for each student they enroll. The advocates for charters like to frame them as public schools offering an alternative to the "other public schools." In fact they are private schools unencumbered by many of the laws that local public schools must follow and the same oversight. For example, charter schools do not have elected school boards accountable to the local community.
What happens when there is little accountability? The study from Western Michigan provides one insight.
The Western Michigan Study looked at data from 60 of the 99 Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools. They only looked at 60 schools because the data wasn't available for the other 39 schools in the national data base.
The KIPP schools enroll a significantly higher proportion of African-American students than the local districts they draw from. As reported in Education Week, the Western Michigan study found that 40 percent of the black males drop out of KIPP schools between grades 6 and 8. Gary Miron at Western Michigan stated that: "The dropout rate for African-American students is really shocking."
The KIPP program is highly rigorous and requires all students to attend a longer school day, sometimes up to 9 total hours. The students are required to attend school every other Saturday and for an extended period during the summer. Miron concluded that KIPP does a good job with those students who can "persevere" the highly regimented KIPP program, but they do not serve well all who come. What happens to the students who can't deal with the rigor of the KIPP program? They return to the regular public schools.
Many years ago, as a brand new teacher, I accepted my first job teaching in East Los Angeles, which is one of the poorest and most violent urban areas in the United States. The school where I taught had extremely low test scores, yet the educational program was one of the best I experienced. Many of our students went on to Ivy League schools and had exceptional careers. Yet based on test scores, this school was a failure. On many occasions the topic of conversation in the faculty room focused on what our school would be like if we could just transfer out (or run off) about 20 percent of the students and keep the "good kids." We all knew that this would make a major difference and our test scores would soar. But, we were a conventional public school and this wasn't a possibility.
The Western Michigan Study also found that the KIPP schools received, on average, about $6,500 per student more than the local public school. This money comes from private foundations, like the Walton Foundation, which pour millions into the support of charter schools and the movement to privatize public education.
Just imagine if the regular public schools in your community were given an extra $6,500 by civic minded foundations. Now, imagine the impact on the public school test scores if 60 percent of the most undisciplined students could be encouraged to transfer elsewhere. (Maybe the charter schools would welcome them?) The headlines about highly successful public schools would dominate the news. However, the American people and a nation built on equality for all would never tolerate such an unethical charade. Would we?
Dr. Paul Hewitt is an assistant professor of educational leadership, curriculum and instruction at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.