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Charter schools aren't necessarily better than traditional public schools

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Charter schools don't necessarily do a better job than traditional public schools teaching students or preparing them for college. Nevertheless, beginning in the Fall of 2014, all New Orleans public school students will attend a charter school, as a major US city does away with traditional public schooling for the first time, reported Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, education reporter for the Christian Science Monitor.

Charter schools are free, public schools contracted to run with greater autonomy than traditional public schools over what they teach and how they teach. In theory, the charter school model encourages flexibility in the use of innovative curricula and teaching approaches to improve student learning and graduation rates.

That increased autonomy comes by freeing schools and their administrators from the allegedly restrictive and harmful demands of teachers' unions (read teachers) and elected school boards (read the public), two groups of stakeholders long vilified as the causes of a perceived mass failure of public education.

Some early data from the New Orleans experiment suggests that the city's post-Katrina lover's embrace of charter schooling and rejection of school turnaround (school improvement) is paying off. For example, nearly 80 percent of the high school class of 2012 graduated on time, versus a graduation rate of only 54 percent for the class of 2004.

Some of those new charter schools, such as the Sci Academy in Eastern New Orleans, have respectable goals and seem to have found innovative ways of achieving them. For example, all Sci Academy staff has the authority to enforce disciplinary policies, even in the hallways.

Further, students at the high school enjoy an increasing amount of academic freedom that, by the senior year, is said to closely model the typical university learning community. One student's senior project involved, for example, petitioning his public defender's office to take specific steps to reduce the negative impacts of imprisonment on juvenile defenders who were wrongly convicted, reported Khadaroo.

Supports such as increased funding, stricter discipline policies and enforcement, and psychological counseling for troubled students appear to have helped many of those New Orleans charter school students. But what might have happened at the traditional New Orleans public schools that the charters replaced had those older schools tried similar innovative approaches to learning and discipline and received the same additional resources?

“You have the same children in the [charter] school … What’s going to be the difference? Put in the services that are going to make the [traditional public school] better,” protested Tanya King, the concerned grandmother of a former student of a closed down New York City traditional public school.

Indeed, 2012 data collected by Daily News on former New York Mayor Michael Blooomberg's pioneering close-and-replace experiment seems to rebut increasingly shrill claims that charter schools necessarily lead to better outcomes for students.

The take away is this: whether they be charter, traditional public or private schools, great schools share similar traits, according to the 2007 book by Karin Chenoweth entitled "It's Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools." Chenoweth, a writer-in-residence at The Education Trust, found that successful schools and districts, even those serving many at-risk students, such as Union City Public Schools in New Jersey, do many things right. In part, great schools promote teacher collaboration and innovation and emphasize reading, vocabulary development and math over teaching to state tests.

Hence, the belief that charter schools are always superior to traditional public schools is more of an ideological tenet than a scientific finding.

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