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Politics of public education reform - exploring Race to the Top's charter school emphasis


AP Photo/Alex Brandon

President Obama’s Race to the Top (RttT) state competition has brought charter schools to the forefront of public education reform.  Additionally, charter schools are prominent in Obama’s 2011 proposed budget – increasing funding for charter schools and an extra $1.8 billion toward Supporting Student Success (which focuses on Promise Neighborhoods, of which charter schools are the central focus).

RttT relies heavily on charter schools as a tool for reform, awarding more points to states which enable charter school creation than to those which do not: 

  • In the State Success Factors section, at least 30 points go toward clearing the way legislatively for charter schools to be allowed and encouraged. 
  • The Turning Around Lowest Achieving Schools section, representing 35 out of 50 possible points, is the reform model for the lowest schools.   Of the four reform models possible, the turnaround model is the option that will allow a school to be turned into a charter. 
  • In the General Selection Criteria, 40 points out of 55 points represents “ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charters and other innovative schools”. 

All told, charter schools are the winner in RttT representing about 25% of the total possible points.   

Charter schools are steadily gaining in popularity.  Student enrollment in Texas charter schools has increased 89% since 2000 and the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington area has at least 43 charter schools representing 1.5% of all public schools. These numbers will only increase if the Obama Administration’s 2011 education budget is approved. 

Charter schools effectiveness, not unlike much in public education, relies on anecdotal and case study evidence.  An example of a case study going national is the successful Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) started by Geoffrey Canada.  The Obama Administration’s 2011 budget plans to replicate its success nationwide – at a cost of billions of dollars - in the form of Promise Neighborhoods. The evidence is clear that the HCZ charter schools and neighborhood involvement program reduces or erases the black-white achievement gap plaguing public schools.   However, are the positive results based on the school model itself?  Is the visionary, Geoffrey Canada, more responsible?  Which component is more responsible for the program’s success or is it a combination of all components? 

Another potential issue was raised by a recent Washington Post article titled, “Study: Charter school growth accompanied by racial imbalance”.  The article dove into the findings of the recently released study by the Civil Rights Project of UCLA called “Choice without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards”.  The report said, “While segregation for blacks among all public schools has been increasing for nearly two decades, black students in charter schools are far more likely than their traditional public school counterparts to be educated in intensely segregated settings.”  They also found a white flight from public schools to charter schools in the western United States and an underrepresentation of English Language Learners in charter school enrollment.

Charter schools can be successful because they operate outside of the confines of the regulations and requirements that accompany public schools.  It begs the question, however, that if the traditional public school model is being deemphasized so charter schools have a chance, maybe vouchers should come next.

See the first article in this series, "Politics of public education reform - exploring Race to the Top’s common standards goal"

For more on Bridgette: Subscribe to get her articles in your inbox or visit her Public Education Blog

For more info on Harlem Children’s Zone
For more info on charter schools


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