The Charter Conundrum

interviewer: Have your mom and dad told you about the lottery?

daisy: The lottery… isn’t that when people play and they win money?

Waiting for Superman, 2010

The release of Waiting for Superman, a documentary film that tells the story of applicants to charter schools in New York and California, intensified an already feverish debate over American education policy. Superman argues that charter schools offer the best hope for poor minority students who would otherwise remain at inner city public schools, where few excel and many drop out.

Charter schools are public schools that operate with considerably more autonomy than traditional American public schools. A charter—the right to operate a public school—is typically awarded to an independent operator (mostly private, nonprofit management organizations) for a limited period, subject to renewal conditional on good performance. Charter schools are free to structure their curricula and school environments. Many charter schools expand instruction time by running long school days and continuing school on weekends and during the summer. Perhaps the most important and surely the most controversial difference between charters and traditional public schools is that the teachers and staff who work at the former rarely belong to labor unions. By contrast, most big-city public school teachers work under teachers’ union contracts that regulate pay and working conditions, often in a very detailed manner. These contracts may improve working conditions for teachers, but they can make it hard to reward good teachers or dismiss bad ones.

Among the schools featured in Waiting for Superman is KIPP LA College Prep, one of more than 140 schools affiliated with the Knowledge Is Power Program. KIPP schools are emblematic of the No Excuses approach to public education, a widely replicated charter model that emphasizes discipline and comportment and features a long school day, an extended school year, selective teacher hiring, and a focus on traditional reading and math skills. KIPP was started in Houston and New York City in 1995 by veterans of Teach for America, a program that recruits thousands of recent graduates of America’s most selective colleges and universities to teach in low-performing school districts. Today, the KIPP network serves a student body that is 95% black and Hispanic, with more than 80% of KIPP students poor enough to qualify for the federal government’s subsidized lunch program.-

The American debate over education reform often focuses on the achievement gap, shorthand for uncomfortably large test score differences by race and ethnicity. Black and Hispanic children generally score well below white and Asian children on standardized tests. The question of how policymakers should react to large and persistent racial achievement gaps generates two sorts of responses. The first looks to schools to produce better outcomes; the second calls for broader social change, arguing that schools alone are unlikely to close achievement gaps. Because of its focus on minority students, KIPP is often central in this debate, with supporters pointing out that nonwhite KIPP students have markedly higher average test scores than nonwhite students from nearby schools. KIPP skeptics have argued that KIPP’s apparent success reflects the fact that KIPP attracts families whose children are more likely to succeed anyway:

KIPP students, as a group, enter KIPP with substantially higher achievement than the typical achievement of schools from which they came…. [Tjeachers told us either that they referred students who were more able than their peers, or that the most motivated and educationally sophisticated parents were those likely to take the initiative… and enroll in KIPP.-2

This claim raises the important question of whether ceteris is paribus when KIPP students are compared to other public school children.

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