Parents and charter schools have shaken up the old order

“It is this parents movement that has shifted the tectonic plates of education reform.”

by Gloria Romero

Even while Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Teachers Association barnstormed the state, urging voters to raise taxes with Proposition 30 to support public education and predicting doomsday if the measure fails, a fascinating report from the California Charter Schools Association was released on the growth of charter schools in the Golden State.

Data from the report clearly reveal that change has come to California’s public education system.

Charter schools are public schools. They are publicly funded but operate with greater independence, autonomy and flexibility from the burdensome state Education Code which micromanages even the minutia of education practices. Charter schools are typically nonunion, although they can be unionized if teachers vote for a union.

Charter schools were first established in the nation two decades ago, with California becoming the second state to authorize them. Hailed as opportunities for innovation and reform, charter schools began to grow.

Even beyond becoming recognized as “petri dishes for educational reform,” the underlying philosophy of parental choice in public education began to take root. In a system where ZIP code is the sole criteria of school assignment, charters began to become a sort of “promised land” for high-poverty, minority families whose children were too often assigned to chronically under performing schools.

One-hundred nine new charters opened in California just this academic year, bringing the number of charter schools to 1,065, the most in the nation. Still, there are still 70,000 pupils on waiting lists.

Clearly, Californians have embraced parental choice in education as reflected by the growth of charters – along with the quality that accompanies the vast majority of these schools. Oxford Preparatory Academy in Chino this year became the state’s top school in student performance – quite possibly the top charter school in the nation.

Some 59.6 percent of Californians gave a grade of A or B to charter schools. Only 32.6 percent assigned a similar grade to traditional public schools.

These data are remarkable given that charter schools are funded at lower levels than traditional public schools in California and are oftentimes sited at facilities lacking in equity. But what they lack in funding they make up in accountability and effectiveness as measured by numerous reports of student performance.

Why? One reason is that teacher quality and the ability to evaluate and link teacher performance to student outcome is more widely used in charter schools which are not limited by burdensome teacher contracts restricting these practices. The use of teacher evaluations and performance measures has been strongly resisted by the CTA.

For example, the CTA affiliate in the Los Angeles Unified School District – the largest in the state – has even threatened to withhold support for the cash-strapped LAUSD’s federal Race to the Top application for $43 million because federal guidelines require teacher evaluation as a component of the program (yet they still campaign for more taxes for a system they refuse to reform).

Charter schools have moved well beyond their original designation as sites of innovation and reform. They have become a respected and accepted part of the education landscape – a landscape which gives choice and real rights to parents to “vote with their feet” when it comes to their children.

Perhaps more than anything, it is this parents movement that has shifted the tectonic plates of education reform.

This piece originally ran in the Orange County Register.

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BY Special to NextSteps