The $100 billion education stimulus package gives Education Secretary Arne Duncan unprecedented leverage to energize the languishing school reform effort.
Mr. Duncan has said from the start that he wants the states to transform about 5,000 of the lowest-performing schools, not in a piecemeal fashion but with bold policies that have an impact right away. The argument in favor of a tightly focused effort aimed at these schools is compelling. We now know, for example, that about 12 percent of the nation’s high schools account for half the country’s dropouts generally — and almost three-quarters of minority dropouts. A plan that fixed these schools, raising high school graduation and college-going rates, would pay enormous dividends for the country as a whole.
Mr. Duncan can use his burgeoning discretionary budget to reward states that take the initiative in this area. But Congress could push the reform effort further and faster by granting the education department’s request for two changes in federal education law. The first would be to come up with new federal school improvement money and require the states to focus 40 percent of it on the lowest-performing middle and high schools. The second change would allow the secretary to directly finance charter-school operators that have already produced high-quality schools.
Charter schools get public money but often are exempt from curricular requirements and other rules that govern traditional public schools. Currently, high-quality charter-school programs often go begging while states finance charters that are worse than the traditional public schools they were meant to replace. The problem is underscored in an eye-opening study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes.
The study, which looked at schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia, showed that 17 percent of charter schools provided a better education than traditional public schools in the same states. But charter backers and state officials were startled to learn that 37 percent of charters offered a worse education than children would have received had they remained in traditional schools.
Mr. Duncan confronted this issue directly at a charter school alliance meeting held in Washington last month, pointing out that the states needed to do a much better oversight job and that failing charters needed to be swiftly shut down. High-quality charter models like the ones used by the KIPP program have a role to play in the plan, the goal of which is to change the cultures of chronically failing schools. Charter operators could be brought into some schools, but other schools might need to simply force out the current staff and bring in a new one. In other cases, states will need to shut down chronically failing schools and enroll students elsewhere.
The secretary should focus intently on the dropout factories, the relatively small number of schools that produce so many of the nation’s dropouts. Efforts at especially difficult schools will need to include social service and community outreach programs, modeled on those already in place in the Harlem Children’s Zone in Upper Manhattan.
Mr. Duncan is on the mark when he says the country needs bold action. It can no longer tolerate schools that have trapped generations of students at the margins of society and locked them out of the new economy.
note: While Hoboken has 2 charter schools, and the State of NJ many more, the study reported in this article did not include any charter schools from the State of New Jersey.
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