Last week, the NAACP issued a report titled, "Quality Education for All" which made news with its call for new restrictions on public charter schools. Charters educate 3 million students, or approximately 6 percent of all public school students, nationwide.
Charters are tuition-free public schools open to all, independent of the traditional public school systems, and free to choose their own educational programs while being held accountable for improved student performance.
Strikingly, this report from the nation's premier civil rights organization singles out charter schools and their students for criticism, and underscores the NAACP's call for a moratorium on charters last year. That the organization that pioneered, struggled for, and achieved so much from Brown v. Board of Education through the 1960s civil rights legislation should speak out in this way commands our attention and engagement.
Yet while correctly pinpointing how children of color, especially in urban areas, have been underserved in public education for generations, advocating new curbs on charter schools contrasts uneasily with data showing that charter schools have improved public education, especially for the most vulnerable.
A 2015 study of 41 urban regions across the nation by Stanford University's highly-respected Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that African-American public charter school students gained 36 days of learning in math and 26 in reading compared to their non-charter peers. Gains were even more substantial among African-American students in poverty, who were 59 days ahead in math and 44 in reading.
Accordingly, perhaps it is not surprising that African-American parents are demanding additional and higher-quality public-school options. In a nationally representative 2016 poll conducted by Braun Research Incorporated, 82 percent of African-American parents favored allowing parents to choose their public school.
Favorable attitudes to choice are underscored by parental demand with families of more than 800,000 African-American students choosing public charter schools. Additionally, charters serve a higher share of African-American students than district schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Of course, comparisons are complicated by the fact that rules and regulations establishing charters vary somewhat in the 46 states and the District of Columbia that have decided to enable them to open, as the NAACP's report notes. But this does not mean that like-for-like comparisons cannot be made at the state level, or that such data should be ignored.
In the District of Columbia, where an independent board whose members are appointed by the district's mayor authorizes charters, nearly half of all public school students are educated at charters. This authorizer also is independent of D.C.'s Board of Education, a form of control the report considers essential for quality.
Before the charter reform was introduced in the mid-1990s, an estimated half of students dropped out before graduating. Today, the on-time high-school graduation rate is 73 percent for D.C.'s African-American charter students and 62 percent for their peers in non-selective schools in the traditional public school system, D.C. Public Schools.
Standardized test scores in reading and math also have improved significantly in both sectors, with charters leading the way at a time when curricula have been enriched and after-school options expanded in both D.C. charters and DCPS.
District charters educate a higher share of economically-disadvantaged and African-American students than the city's traditional system. And African-American charter students in D.C. are nearly twice as likely to meet or exceed statewide benchmarks for college and career-readiness in math and English language arts combined as their peers in non-selective DCPS schools, as measured by the city's standardized tests.
In D.C. and many states, charters receive fewer taxpayer dollars per student, despite stronger results than government-run public schools. D.C. charters, like those in Massachusetts and California, benefit from a funding system that favors students from poor families. They also are, by law, nonprofits—a difference worth noting as the NAACP highlights the minority of jurisdictions that allow for-profit charters.
By providing choice for those who previously had none, D.C.'s charter schools and similarly high-performing counterparts elsewhere are delivering on the hope and promise of the civil rights movement, which has been so bravely championed and admirably advanced by the NAACP for so long.
Ramona Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.
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