Like me, you probably know two things about charter schools. One is that the charter-school experiment has been a disappointment, with more schools failing than succeeding because of lack of funding, mismanagement, or poor performance. The second is that when a charter school does manage to succeed, it hurts the public schools.
Everything I thought I knew about charter schools is wrong. The latest results from across the country show that charter schools are a success. And, in the places where they have sprouted, charter schools have helped public schools.
Currently, DISD is an unwieldy and wasteful central bureaucracy that has failed in its central mission. I’ve got an idea how to fix it.
According to Harvard professor Caroline Hoxby, Dallas charter schools like A.W. Brown Fellowship, Dallas Community, Harmony Science, Kipp Truth, Peak, and Pegasus are reshaping education in the United States. They are taking the poorest-performing children from at-risk families, enforcing discipline while providing safe environments, and achieving remarkable gains. High-risk students improve at a greater rate in charter schools than in public schools.
Far from skimming off the cream from public schools, charter schools are tackling the toughest segment of the student population. When they were in public school, these students were lower performers, scoring worse in reading and math on national tests. Charter students are 38 percent more likely to be black and 42 percent more likely to be low-income than students in the nearest public school.
By taking those students, charters are allowing public-school teachers to do their jobs with the regular students who remain—and teachers are responding.
Wherever a charter school is successfully established, the neighborhood public schools show startling rates of improvement. It’s not just that the charters removed the worst-performing students. Competition from charter schools has shattered the monopolistic complacency of public-school districts.
Competition doesn’t only mean head-to-head comparison of results. It also allows public-school principals and teachers to point at the successful charter school down the street and ask why they can’t use the same methods and tools it does. It gives principals and teachers political leverage to innovate, to instill discipline, and to demand accountability. It gives them a reason—and sometimes a needed excuse—to perform.
Lastly, charter schools are setting higher standards of academic performance. Next year, Peak Academy in Old East Dallas will serve more than 300 mostly Hispanic students. Like its sister charter in Irving, North Hills, next year it will join the International Baccalaureate program, the intensive college-prep program. Forty percent of North Hill’s eligible students took the IB exam last year, and 100 percent passed.
As one charter-school founder told me, the story that is emerging has the makings of a "huge societal change."
The fastest way to change Dallas public schools—and the stifling bureaucratic culture of DISD—would be to encourage more charter schools in the neighborhoods where public schools are failing. The timing couldn’t be better. Melinda and Bill Gates are funding the Texas High School Project through Dallas’ own Communities Foundation to redo failing high schools and start new ones. If Superintendent Michael Hinojosa wants to force radical change inside DISD, his best weapon would be to enlist the Gates’ project to launch charter schools to replace or to compete with DISD’s.
The Soviet Union fell. New York City’s crime rate plummeted. Iraq held free elections. Who says DISD can’t improve?