JOHN HOOD: Charter Schools Deliver for at-Risk Kids
In a revealing example of Alexander Pope's observation that "a little learning is a dangerous thing," some left-wing politicians and activists in North Carolina seem to believe that because family structure and income exhibit a persistent correlation with student achievement, significant education progress is impossible without massive social programs or income redistribution.
Actually, their overstatement of the poverty-education link is a sign of progress. Not that long ago, leftists tended to engage in grossly simplistic thinking about school reform, arguing that if the taxpayers were simply compelled to "invest" more of their money in public education, the result would be large gains in learning and, therefore, in the economic prospects of our young people.
We tried this. It didn't work. At the national level, real per-pupil spending has more than doubled since the early 1970s, but the needles barely moved on reading, math, and graduation rates.
Here in North Carolina, large increases in school spending were accompanied with strong test-score gains in the early 1990s, but the performance trend had flattened out by the end of the de-cade -- despite a flurry of expensive reforms that included new preschool programs, teacher-pay hikes, and class-size reductions.
Recognizing that the old simplistic model of "dollars in, scores up" wasn't panning out, many public educators and their defenders fell back on the almost-as-simplistic notion that public schools can only accomplish so much, given cultural and socioeconomic conditions beyond their control.
Sure, studies show that demographics matter. All other things being equal, students from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to score lower and finish school less often than do those with stable home environments and household incomes near or above the median. But demography isn't destiny.
Socioeconomic explanations of test-score data tell us how the current system operates, and perhaps even that reformers of all stripes should avoid the temptation to overpromise. But they obviously can't explain variances in school performance among students of like circumstances, or what results we could expect from an educational system featuring greater choice and competition.
Consider the recent performance of two southeastern N.C. charter schools run by the Roger Bacon Academy, a creation of entrepreneur (and John Locke Foundation board member) Baker Mitchell.
Charter Day School in Leland and Columbus Charter School in Whiteville combine proven, phonics-based methods of teaching students of all backgrounds with firm discipline and a broad, classical curriculum. The two schools currently serve about 1,000 students between them, and they do it at a lower cost than the public schools (because charters don't get capital funding from Raleigh or their counties).
When the state's 2007-08 test scores came out, there was a great deal of confusion and consternation across North Carolina, because the percentage of students deemed "at grade level" was so much lower than had been reported in the past. Though justified, the reaction overshadowed the lessons to be learned by comparing student scores across school types. As the Locke Foundation's Terry Stoops observed, the state's charter schools outperformed district-run schools this year on all but one measure of student achievement.
At Mitchell's charter schools, the lesson is unmistakable. Statewide, 56 percent of students passed the reading test and 70 percent passed the math test. At Charter Day School, the passing rates were 62 percent and 82 percent, respectively.
But was this just because the charter school attracted students more likely to perform well? Not at all. Among students eligible for free or reduced school lunch, North Carolina public schools as a whole posted dismal results in 2007-08: only 40 percent were proficient in reading and 57 percent proficient in math. But at the Roger Bacon charter schools, 56 percent of disadvantaged students were proficient in reading and 78 percent were proficient in math.
In other words, at Charter Day and Columbus Charter, the disadvantaged students matched or exceeded the average statewide performance of all public-school students.
Is school reform possible without spending more money or redistributing family income? Absolutely. If you want to know how, take I-40 east.
John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of CarolinaJournal.com.
More like this story