By NINA REES
President Obama will soon release his federal budget for 2014, and a top priority is likely to be early-childhood education, particularly for the poor. But will the proposal seek much funding for the growth of charter schools—at least more than the paltry 0.4% of federal education spending that currently supports these exciting and demonstrably successful schools?
Last month, the respected private firm Mathematica Policy Research published a multiyear study of students enrolled in KIPP (the Knowledge Is Power Program), a network of 125 charter schools serving 41,000 students in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The study found that after three years students in the KIPP program were 11 months ahead of their traditional-public-school peers in math and eight months ahead in reading. Also after three years (or four for some children in the study), KIPP students were 14 months ahead in science and 11 months ahead in social studies.
These gains are substantial. For every three (or four) years they spend in the program, KIPP students are benefiting from almost a full year of greater learning growth than they would if they remained in traditional public schools.
This success is even more remarkable given that KIPP draws from some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country. Some 96% of KIPP students are black or Hispanic. More than four of five come from households with annual incomes low enough to qualify for subsidized school lunch.
What’s more, the typical incoming student at KIPP scores in the 45th percentile in district-wide reading and math exams. That initial achievement level is much lower than for the typical student entering the traditional public school system.
Other studies have found similar results. In a report released last month on charter schools in New York City, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that after just one year, charter-school students had gained one more month of learning in reading and five more months in math, compared with their district-school peers. More than a fifth of New York’s public charter schools post significantly larger learning gains in reading than do their traditional counterparts—and nearly two-thirds of charters outperform traditional schools in math.
KIPP runs 10 schools in New York City, but it also has competition. In 2012, 87% of students in the Uncommon Schools charter network—which operates 15 New York City schools serving 3,900 kids—scored advanced or proficient in math. That is 27 percentage points above the city average. In English, more than half of Uncommon’s kids were advanced or proficient, beating the city average by eight percentage points.
What is the key to the success of schools like KIPP and Uncommon?
For starters, as independent public schools, charters aren’t weighed down by onerous regulations that stifle innovation. Administrators and teachers have the freedom to develop new and creative teaching methods. Charter schools have also attracted a new generation of talented, motivated teachers, school leaders and entrepreneurs through the promise of a new approach to educating underserved children.
Policy makers should encourage such educational entrepreneurship. One way they can do so is by eliminating state caps on charter schools, which currently apply in 21 of the 43 states (including Washington, D.C.) that have charter laws. With over 600,000 students on waiting lists to attend charter schools nationwide, this should be an easy task.
Legislators at the state and federal levels should also strive to attract new entrepreneurs to the charter-school space. Schools like KIPP and Uncommon succeed in the cities where they operate, but other geographic areas may demand different approaches. The next great public charter school may deploy a digital learning model or a hybrid of several models. Officials should be open to such experimentation.
At the same time, all charters should be regularly and rigorously reviewed. Those that consistently fail to meet achievement standards should be closed.
The federal government, meanwhile, should make sure that charters receive their fair share of funding. The current pot reserved to finance startup, replication and expansion of charter operations has just $254 million in it, or less than 1% of federal education spending. That share should grow.
The data are in. Charters can—and do—deliver top-notch education even to the most disadvantaged of American students. The White House, Congress and policy makers in state capitals must do their part to support successful charters, promote their replication, and encourage new entrants to adapt their best practices.
Ms. Rees is the president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
This op-ed appeared in on the WSJ on 3/27/13