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Do Charter Schools Work?

In April 1, 2007, Governor Spitzer and state lawmakers agreed to double the number of new charter schools allowed in the state from 100 to 200. Fifty of the new schools will be located in New York City. The additional charter schools will be subject to several new regulations, including a provision requiring that if a school has more than 250 students within its first two years of operation, its staff will automatically unionize.

Charter schools are public schools that operate free from many of the rules and regulations that govern regular public schools, and in theory can be shut down more easily. The first charter schools opened in New York through a 1998 bill. As of April 2007, six charter schools in New York have been closed down for poor performance.

Photo of Icahn with students
Based in the South Bronx, the Carl C. Icahn Charter School is considered one of the most successful charter schools in the city. Charter schools take the same tests as regular public schools, and in the 2005-2006 academic year, eighty-three percent of the students at Icahn passed the English exam, which is forty-three percent more than kids in regular public schools from the same district. Ninety seven percent of the student body passed the math test, which is fifty-one percent more than the rest of the district. Like all charter schools, Icahn selects its students through a lottery, not based on merit.

Photo of students
Principal Jeff Litt attributes the schoolís success to a variety of factors, including classes of no more than eighteen students, an extremely dedicated teaching staff, and a curriculum called Core Knowledge, which emphasizes phonics, classic literature, and basic cultural facts.

Litt calls Core Knowledge "the great equalizer."

"Yes, many of our kids do not come from a literature rich environment," Litt told NEW YORK VOICES. "Many of our kids do not come from a home where the families have a lot of formal education. Which is why they must have a rigorous program with high expectations, high standards, exposed to the arts, exposed to the literature, exposed to the music. My second graders can tell you about Beethoven."

Schools that Beat the Odds

Richard Rothstein, an education expert with the Economic Policy Institute, argues that years of research shows that great schools alone canít bridge the achievement gap. He hasnít studied Icahn specifically, but has looked closely at many other schools that claim to ďbeat the demographic odds.Ē

"There have been schools after schools after schools, articles after article after articles written claiming that suddenly here is a school which has shown that it can make up for all of these external forces simply by having good curriculum and high expectations," Rothstein told NY VOICESí Rafael Pi Roman. ďAnd they always pan out not to be true."

Photo of Rothstein
Rothstein says that even though charter schools select students by lottery, they tend to get a population that's more likely to succeed than the kids who go to regular public schools. "You have to choose to go to a charter school," Rothstein told Rafael Pi Roman. "The students who choose to go to charter schools are likely to have more motivated parents. They are likely to be more motivated themselves. The students who donít make a choice, who just go to the school thatís assigned to them are likely to be less motivated than those that make a positive choice to go elsewhere."

Rothstein also points to nationwide studies that show that charter schools donít outperform regular public schools, and says that charter schools are prone to the same mismanagement, nepotism, and corruption that made that made the regulations that govern public schools necessary.

Photo of Klein
NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein disagrees. In charter schools, Klein told Rafael Pi Roman, accountability helps guard against mismanagement and failure. "If I say to a principal if you donít get real gains in your studentsí performance then I am going to terminate youówhich is what Iíve saidóthey canít afford to hire their buddies and their friends. Because performance is what drives them."

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Bridging the Achievement Gap: A profile of the Carl C. Icahn Charter School in the South Bronx.

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View this storyInterview with Richard Rothstein: An education expert on charters and other schools that claim to "beat the demographic odds."

Interview with Joel Klein: NYCís schools chancellor on charter schools and other aspects of his reform agenda.

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