Invest in Great Educators, Not Dysfunctional Schools

Invest in Great Educators, Not Dysfunctional Schools
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Students, teachers and supporters march on the grounds of the Texas Capitol, Friday, Jan. 30, 2015, in Austin, Texas. School choice supporters called for expanding voucher programs and charter schools statewide. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

RCEd Commentary

Last week, charter advocates cheered as the White House proposed a whopping 50 percent increase in federal support for charter schools. But they should have jeered the administration for playing small ball.

If you arranged the names of all the federal educational grant programs on a single page (you’d need a long page) and then weighted the text size by which programs have a track record of improving the lives of poor kids, one acronym would stand out: the CSP – the tiny federal Charter Schools Program.

We need to keep this in mind as Congress nears a vote to overhaul No Child Left Behind. There’s no better time than now to be honest about when the federal government helps local schools, when it hurts them, and when it’s, well, just ineffectual.

Let’s start with the hurt and ineffectual side of the ledger.

The federal government possesses little expertise in turning around truly troubled schools; unfortunately, this has not stopped it from spending billions of dollars on turnaround efforts that produced few gains.  This is not a recipe for success.

Nor is micromanaging in other operational issues: the feds should avoid top-down mandates in areas like teacher evaluations, professional development, and tutoring. Schools are incredibly complex organizations, and legislation is an extremely blunt and often ineffectual tool for changing educator practice.

Some problems simply will not be solved from Washington, D.C. But this does not mean that the federal government should sit on the sidelines when it comes to helping children who lack quality school options.

Instead of investing in dysfunction, the feds should radically increase investment in great educators. 

Since 1995, the federal government has provided funds to states -- $804 million since 2010 -- to start and scale effective charter schools, according to figures generated by CSP at our request. This federal investment in great educators has led to the creation of a new wave of effective and innovative schools.

With this support of this investment, how are charter schools performing?  

In 2013, a research group out of Stanford conducted a national study that covered 95 percent of students who attend charter schools. The study found that African American students in poverty who attended charter schools achieved nearly two months’ worth of extra learning per year relative to their district school peers.

The typical editorial headline on charter schools inevitably notes that they are no better or worse than traditional schools. This is absolutely not true if you happen to be an African-American child living in poverty.

And that’s just on average. Some of the best charter groups out there – Brooke charters in Boston come to mind – are leveling achievement gaps. They are not alone, and more will follow, if the federal government steps up its investments.

From 2010-14, the feds began to get serious in investing deeply in our nation’s best school organizations. They pumped enough money  -- $208 million -- into high-performing charter groups like KIPP, IDEA, Aspire and Achievement First to replicate or expand 415 high-performing charter schools, according to CSP figures. Assuming a typical school size of five hundred children, this will lead to high-quality educational opportunities for over 200,000 children.

So here’s our recommendation to Congress: let’s quadruple down on what’s working.

President Obama’s new proposed budget allocates $375 million for the Charter Schools Program – a 48 percent increase over the current program.

This is not enough.

The federal government should ramp up annual spending on charter schools from $250 million to $1 billion. This could provide new educational opportunities for over 1 million children.

The feds recently spent over $3.5 billion on trying to turnaround failing schools.

At the very least, we should spend the same amount of money on growing schools that are actually working.


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