There are lots of people who don’t believe in or like charter schools. They believe all kinds of things about what charter schools are like and why they are bad for American education. Working at KIPP for the last 7 years, I don’t agree with many of the critiques I hear, but there are more than a few that are rooted in fact. Here are some of the ones I believe are at least sometimes true:
- Some charter schools play games with what kind of students and families they take in
- Some charter schools play games with what students they keep and who they kick out
- Some charter schools have mismanaged public monies, or worse, intentionally redirected money meant for kids to enrich school administrators.
- The distinction between charter schools and district schools doesn’t tell you anything about the quality of the school. While studies have shown different things, there is no doubt that many charter schools do no better than district schools.
- Some charter schools aren’t transparent with what happens in their buildings or what happens in the back offices. The current system of charter oversight in Philadelphia, with a well-meaning but small staff in the charter school office looking over 80+ charter schools is not sufficient.
- Some charter schools only care about high test scores and teaching to the state test
- It’s too hard to close charters where kids aren’t achieving or are mismanaged
- Too many people look to charter schools as a silver bullet that will “fix” urban education.
Too often when I read education websites, blogs, and comment sections I see people on both sides of many issues repeating the same talking points without having as good an understanding of all the facts on the ground. This is as true of debates about the Common Core standards or phonics instruction as it is of charter school conversations. Just like with Middle East politics or figuring out why my wife is mad at me, a key first step in these education debates is getting all the information out on the table. While this is just the first step in having a productive debate, we can then at least have a conversation about the same set of facts and maybe even find some common ground.
So I’m going to try to do my part and give some information about how some anti-charter arguments stack up to the facts on the ground as I see them at KPEA. Before I begin, three caveats - to be clear, facts are never without interpretation so I expect that some will argue with my facts. I’ve tried to be as objective as possible but I’m obviously not a neutral observer here. Secondly, this is the information that I know best because it’s about the school I work in each day and the details are going to be different at every charter school even within the KIPP network. Finally, I can’t attempt to answer every criticism of charter schools in one post so I’m focusing on what I hear the most.
Charter schools play games with what kind of students and families we take in
At KPEA, our enrollment form is one, single-sided page that simply asks basic demographic information like address, phone number, and date of birth. Our open enrollment period is for two months (February and March) and no additional information is required for a child to be entered into the lottery other than the one-page form. No special in-person meeting, no bringing in proof of address, no essays, no report cards – nothing. We distribute these enrollment forms to locations where we can find lots of families in our neighborhood – places like community centers, Head Start centers, corner stores, and supermarkets. We go door-to-door in our immediate neighborhood handing out our information. The enrollment form is available online. We also host three voluntary enrollment Open Houses during our open enrollment time for interested families to see the school, observe classes, and ask me questions. It’s totally optional, but we think it’s important to provide a chance for interested families to see the school they want to send their child to.
As a result of our open process, our student population is reflective of the communities we serve, with over 85% of our student qualifying for free or reduced meals and over 20% of our students having an IEP, including more severe challenges like intellectual disabilities, autism, and Down’s syndrome.
Charter schools play games with what students they keep and who they kick out
Many people know that at KIPP, we do home visits to meet our new students and families before they start school. This happens after they are admitted and is basically an orientation to school that happens at the student’s home because we feel that this is a really effective way to start to build a strong home-school connection. This meeting has zero impact on which students are admitted. To be absolutely sure that all our families understand this, the very first thing I say to families when we sit down is “Relax, this is not an interview. Your child already has a spot.”
Our goal is to keep 100% of our students each year and for as many of our students who start with us in kindergarten to stay at KIPP for the next 13 years until they go to college. In our two years at KPEA, we have never kicked a student out and hope we never have an incident serious enough that this would have to happen. This doesn’t mean we don’t have hard kids, because we do. We have kids who were absent over 40 times in a year, students who were physically violent towards teachers, and students who were frequently defiant. But we don’t get rid of those students (this is no doubt easier for us as an elementary school than it is for both district and charter schools with older students because serious incidents are simply less extreme when kids are 6 and 7). When students are really challenging we just work harder to figure out how to meet their needs. Because we don’t get rid of students who are struggling and because our families are satisfied, our yearly student attrition rate has been under 2%.
Charter schools only care about high test scores and teaching to the state test
First, the caveat that our oldest group of students are only now in 2nd grade and won’t take the Pennsylvania state test until next year. But our students do very well on commercially available reading assessments like STEP and F&P and the nationally normed NWEA MAP assessment. At KPEA we believe a core part of our mission is to give our students the academic skills to succeed and this included rigorous literacy and math instruction taught in a student-centered way. This looks like students getting phonics for 30 minutes per day in small, leveled groups. It means students get small group guided reading four times per week and lots of time for independent reading and literacy centers. And it also means 70 minutes of math each day that includes at least 30 minutes of math centers. But we know if we are really serious about developing our students to be the kind of people and learners who can be whatever they want in life, that success in reading and math is necessary but not even close to being sufficient.
Because we have a longer school day (8am-4pm) we have more time to fit in great core academic instruction with the “extras” that are so essential for elementary kids that calling them “extra” doesn’t do their importance justice. All of our students have 30 minutes of recess each day. All students have science or social studies for 45 minutes per day. Kids have art, Spanish, and gym each week, starting in kindergarten. Our kinder students have nap – real nap with cots, blankets, and (optional) stuffed animals. We have special education teachers in every grade, a full-time speech therapist, and part-time occupational therapists and social workers. We go on three field trips a year. Students put on extravagant musical performances. We teach character education classes focused on social skills and values. In other words, we try really hard to give our students the well-rounded education that families pay lots of money for. My goal is to make sure that KPEA is a place I would want to send my 18 month old son when he gets older and I know we're on the right track because there are multiple KIPP staff who send their own children to KPEA.
Charter schools aren’t transparent with what happens in their buildings or what happens in the back offices
One of the many reasons, I’m really proud to work at KIPP Philadelphia is because of our strong stance around transparency. We have created a special section of our website called Open Book where anyone can find information on our board, our budgets, school leader salary scale and tons of other topics. We’re a public school and the public deserves to know how we operate. And at KPEA we also have a literal open door policy at our school. Our families can come into our building to observe classes anytime they want, no appointment needed. We hosted between 50 and 60 visitors last year from other schools, foundations, and community groups and never said “no” to anyone. We’re proud of what we do and happy to share it with others.
This post isn’t mean to show anti-charter advocates that they are wrong – because in some important ways they are right. It’s not to show that we have things figured out at KPEA, because I have a long list of what we’re working to do better this year. It’s simply to say that there is too much at stake for all of our kids to not find common ground where it exists and part of that is for everyone – myself included – to do more to engage with the real issues. That starts with getting down to the ground level to learn what is really happening in all of our schools, no matter the type. Please contact me if you’d like to visit KPEA. We’d be happy to have you.