04/22/2011 05:58 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2011

For Hempstead N.Y., Charter Ain't no Magic Bullet

Parents and community leaders in Hempstead, New York are constantly searching for a magic bullet to improve poor high school performance, especially in an era of budget cuts. Part of the problem is that, in this working-class and poor Black and Hispanic town located on suburban Long Island, the more middle class families pull their students out of the public school system and send them to Sacred Heart Academy (girls) and Kellenberg Memorial High School (boys).

The latest proposal to save education in Hempstead is a charter high school modeled after the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP). Unfortunately, a close look at KIPP suggests this type of charter school program won't actually be a magic bullet for Hempstead. Even more, it reveals that in the education of students from poorer minority communities, there aren't any magic bullets at all.

According to their website, KIPP is "a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools dedicated to preparing students in under-served communities in college and in life." KIPP operates 99 charter schools across the country and has a national reputation for success in promoting academic improvement for low-income minority students.

The KIPP model stresses "Five Pillars," high expectations for students, student and family commitment to the program, additional instruction time at the end of the day and on weekends, effective leadership teams, and a focus on preparing students for standardized tests. In a number of cities, KIPP-like charter schools have been proposed as the magic bullet that will transform urban minority education and help all students in the "race to the top." Even Arne Duncan, President Obama's Education Czar, has praised the KIPP network for debunking "the myth that great schools are one-offs that cannot be replicated."

The KIPP website claims that:

While less than 40 percent of low-income students attend college nationally, KIPP's college matriculation rate stands at more than 85 percent for students who complete the eighth grade at KIPP. More than 90 percent of KIPP alumni go on to college-preparatory high schools; collectively, they have earned millions of dollars in scholarships and financial aid since 2000.

This last statement is where the whole 'magic bullet' thing gets tricky, at least according to an article in Education Week and a study by researchers at Western Michigan University.

The article and study report that forty percent of the African American boys enrolled in KIPP schools leave between grades 6 and 8. Gary J. Miron, a professor of evaluation, measurement, and research at Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, and the lead researcher for the study charged, "The dropout rate for African-American males is really shocking. KIPP is doing a great job of educating students who persist, but not all who come."

Essentially KIPP gets its astounding numbers by weeding out students with the greatest academic and social difficulty and passing them off onto the regular public schools. KIPP's average scores climb while public school test scores falter.

KIPP's inability to address the needs of these African American young men is despite the fact that KIPP schools are much better funded than schools in surrounding school districts. In 2007-2008, KIPP schools received, on average, $18,500 per pupil, about $6,500 more per student than the average for other schools in the same districts. The Western Michigan study reports that additional money comes from private donations and grants. According to Dr. Miron of Western Michigan the "$6,500 cost advantage" raises questions about the sustainability of the KIPP model. His report concludes:

The limited range of students that KIPP serves, its inability to serve all students who enter, and its dependence on local traditional public schools to receive and serve the droves of students who leave, all speak loudly to the limitations of this model.

Part of the problem is that, although KIPP is a not-for-profit company, its Board of Directors, officers, and donors look suspiciously like people waiting to profit if the charter school movement is able to dismantle and privatize public education. John Fisher, chairman of the Board of Directors of KIPP, is President of an investment management company and Richard Barth, the CEO, previously worked for the for-profit Edison schools. Board embers include the President and CEO of Viacom, a telecommunications giant, the founder of Netflix, the Managing Director of a leading global private investment firm, and Carrie Walton Penner from Walmart. Big donors include Eli Broad and Bill and Melinda Gates.

Charter schools may someday make these people a lot more money, but the evidence is weak that they will ever help people like the families in Hempstead.