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Hearing on state of charter schools exemplifies divisiveness of issue

The House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education held a June 1 hearing on the state of charter schools in America. The testimony and series of questions and answers spanned nearly three hours, covering topics like charter school accreditation processes, the increased role of private management firms in operating local charter schools and the difficulty of scaling successful charter schools to address state-specific and national needs.

To the chair of the subcommittee Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), “charter schools empower parents to play a more active role in their child’s education, and offer students a priceless opportunity to escape underperforming schools. These innovative institutions also open doors for teachers to experiment with fresh teaching methods and curricula that they believe will have the greatest positive impact on students in their individual community.”

However, Western Michigan University’s Dr. Gary Miron, who advocated for charter schools in the mid-1990s, explained the success of those early models are much harder to emulate today given the top-down regulations public and charter schools must comply with as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Nor are charter schools necessarily an improvement on traditional public schools: A Stanford University study that found for every 17 charters that perform better than public schools, 37 charters do worse.

Dr. Miron also cautioned against regarding charter schools as laboratories of experimentation: “Involvement of local persons or groups in starting charter schools is shrinking, replaced instead by outsiders, particularly private education management organizations (EMOs), which steer these schools from distant corporate headquarters. Claims that EMOs can make charter schools more effective have not been substantiated by research.”

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) pressed Dr. Miron to clarify the degree of choice charter schools afford in a community. Dr. Miron admitted parents with greater “aspirations” for their children and with a higher education attainment level are more likely to seek out education alternatives for their children. He also stated two-parent households are more likely to put in the time and research to compare available schools and education programs in the community, referring to an OECD study (PDF) that found similar results.

Continuing on the subject of choice, Dr. Miron explained many charter schools receive public money to offer transportation to the student body, yet can still keep the tax dollars if they select to direct those funds to different expenses.

Debbie Beyer, executive director of Literacy First Charter Schools near San Diego described (PDF) the twenty-year movement as “not the panacea to all the ills of public education, and not all charters are doing a bang up job. But they are an incredible option for families that are becoming acute consumers of public education.” She also highlighted the difficulty of securing accreditation, and alleged charter schools receive more scrutiny than public schools. She said her team had to explain a two-point drop in reading levels even though her school was one of the county leaders in test results despite those English Language scores.

To Beyer, public education should not be bound to any one institution, saying, “Literacy First “[serves] at the pleasure of the taxpaper.” Unlike traditional public schools with collective bargaining agreements between the district and educators, her teachers do not receive tenure. They are, however, given pay incentives for pursuing experiments that yield positive results, a model the president and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would like public schools to follow.

Rep. Hunter released a press release following the hearing that omitted mention of Miron. He was the only education scholar witness. The other three professionals mentioned in the press release were either administrators or executives of charter school-related groups.

Not to be outdone, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who chaired the entire House Education and Labor Committee between 2007 and 2011 and has called himself a supporter of charter schools, released a press statement that made mention of only Miron.

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