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Another Voice: Charters are raising U.S. educational standards

By Ramona Edelin

Those of us reading this column won’t be here to witness the dawn of the next century, but some of the children in our public schools today will. We have aspirations how we want our cities – especially their urban cores – and nation and world to change, so our children will be better off.

And as we mark the close of one administration and transition to another, this is an opportune moment to mark how far we have come in reforming public education, as well as the longer journey that lies ahead.

Chartered public schools have become increasingly familiar – although by no means universally so – to urban Americans who enroll their children in charters or would like to. Most, however, are not aware of this important education reform’s latest anniversary.

It is 25 years since the first charter school law was signed by Minnesota’s then-Gov. Arne Carlson. Publicly funded, charters are free to operate independently of traditional public school districts, including by designing their own school curriculum and culture, while being charged with raising educational standards by their public charter school board authorizers.

Like traditional public schools, charters are tuition-free and non-sectarian. Also, like most of their traditional counterparts, no charter school may administer entrance exams or auditions, and must serve students on a first-come, first-served basis.

Unlike schools in the traditional system, charters are able to attract and incentivize talented staff to work at their schools; to provide innovative educational programs that take students far beyond being taught to pass standardized tests; and can be closed if their regulators find they are underserving their students.

This last option could have benefited traditional schools, especially in urban America, in decades past.

As schools of choice, parents must elect to send their children to a charter. What has made charters unique is they took that concept, once available only to those with the means to afford private education, or buy or rent in affluent suburban or rural communities, and made it available toeconomically disadvantaged students.

This revolution, which created an attractive alternative to dysfunctional, decaying and dangerous school systems, accounts for much of charters’ popularity.

By the end of this year, the number of students educated at public charter schools will have almost tripled to nearly 3 million over the past 11 years.

More than student enrollment, in school districts where at least 30 percent of students are enrolled in charter schools, nearly all (14 of 16) had a higher percentage of test takers who scored proficient on state tests than did their counterparts. Results are equally strong for economically disadvantaged charter school students.

Forget caps on charter numbers and underfunding charter students. Let’s embrace more of these unique public schools. Future generations of children and parents deserve no less.

Ramona Edelin, Ph.D., is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.

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