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Charter Schools: Time to Cull the Herd

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Charter schools fail. That's big news coming from Education Secretary Arnie Duncan, a long time supporter of charters. He has correctly observed that the quality of charters is grossly uneven. The solution: apply the standards movement to charter schools. Sec. Duncan gave a speech this week in which he challenged the key charter states to start holding charter schools accountable and not giving them a pass. It's critical that they take his advice if they are to contribute to any real educational improvement.

Charters are supposed to be on the cutting edge of public education; it's where innovation can be tested. The theory of charters is that they are freed from bureaucratic entanglements in return for producing better outcomes. So when charters fail, they should be closed. According to a Stanford study that was released just last week, 37% of charters studied showed gains that were worse than their traditional public school counterparts, with 46% of charters showing no significant difference. In short, it's time to cull the herd.

The larger issue is whether charters are worth all the trouble. On balance, I think they are. Today, less than 3% of our 50 million K-12 students are educated in charter schools. Although a relatively small number, they include some of the most innovative, thought-provoking experiments in education today, ranging from teacher union-run charters to academies of finance. Most importantly, they attract highly interested parents and passionate teachers. I have personally facilitated several charters - both as NY Schools Chancellor and through private charity. On the other hand, I was the first Chancellor to close charters because they were failing. We need to do both.

Secretary Duncan's speech is well-timed and courageous, and deserves support. The next step would be for him to encourage states to apply the same standards to private and religious schools, many of which routinely perform worse than public schools. Paying tuition is no guaranty of quality. There is no excuse for children graduating without fundamental reading and analytic skills. That applies to public and charter schools as well as private institutions. Applying standards across the board demonstrate real courage.

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