The Virginia Board of Education expects to finalize new statewide guidelines for reviewing charter applications at its public meeting Jan. 13. The new procedures are based on changes signed into law last year, and should prove helpful for both charter school applicants and local school boards who will be reviewing applications.
The best-performing charter schools in the United States have much to offer Virginia. And the commonwealth, whose schools regularly rate in the top quarter of states nationally, also has much to gain.
This is especially true at the high school level. Research from around the country shows that students who attend charter high schools have a significantly better chance of earning a high school diploma, and attending college, than those in traditional public high schools.
In particular, the strongest educational case for charter high schools can be made in Portsmouth, Norfolk, Petersburg, Roanoke and Richmond. The graduation rate in each of these cities was more than 10 points below the state average.
Portsmouth had Virginia’s worst on-time graduation rate, 67 percent, despite improving by 4 percentage points last year.
The statewide on-time graduation rate for the class of 2010 increased slightly for the second straight year, to 85 percent. But critical gaps persist in many school districts, even those that are generally considered high performers.
The dropout rate for Latino students statewide, 18 percent, was three times the rate for white students. African-American students had a 12 percent dropout rate, more than twice that for white students.
The potential benefits for high school students would by no means be limited to urban districts. Latino students in both Fairfax County and Alexandria graduate high school at rates more than 10 percentage points behind their black classmates, and nearly 20 points below white classmates. To get these children back on track and keep them there, new options are needed, and choices with proven track records like the top charter schools may represent the best solution.
Charter high schools tend to be a good deal smaller than traditional public high schools, a factor which itself can prove important for many children. Other characteristics of high-performing charter high schools include academic rigor focused on preparation for college; the effective use of student performance data to guide instruction; a supportive, goal-oriented school culture; and strong accountability for results that leads to continuous improvement.
A 2010 study by the Mathematica Policy Institute of students attending charter high schools in Florida and Chicago found that the schools produced important academic gains. Attending a charter high school in Florida increased students’ chances of earning a standard high school diploma by 15 percentage points (7 points in Chicago).
Charter high school students also substantially increased their likelihood of attending a two- or four-year college.
In Washington, D.C., Thurgood Marshall Academy exemplifies many of these winning qualities. The school utilized innovative public-private funding and partnerships to restore a 100-year-old school building into a striking state-of-the-art charter campus. Most importantly, its exclusively African-American student population achieves among the District’s top levels of academic proficiency and growth on reading and math scores.
In recent years, much attention has been garnered on the nation’s top “powerhouse” elementary charter schools, frequently serving children in prekindergarten through eighth grade. These include the KIPP family of schools featured in the popular 2010 documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which turned out large audiences in some Virginia communities. But the benefits of high-performing charters are by no means limited to primary grades, and the urgency of offering high-quality interventions to students entering the ninth grade reading well below grade level is the sort of challenge top charters have proved effective at meeting.
In general, children attending Virginia public schools are continuing to improve their results on critical measures like standardized tests and graduation rates. This is true not just for overall averages of all children, but for black and Latino children who continue to struggle most. But the current achievement gaps are as indefensible as they are solvable, and these young people could be drawing strong benefits from what is succeeding elsewhere.
The new state charter procedures should help, particularly in school districts without charter school experience. Unfortunately, various operational and political factors in many such communities seriously compromise the likelihood of opening a quality charter under circumstances able to support its success. But as we consider the children at the losing end of these achievement gaps, how best to help them and the future we all share as members of the same community, there is little to gain from not trying such a proven solution.
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