Public Schools and Charter Schools: Who’s Leaving Kids Behind?

Many political leaders and foundations are pushing charter schools as the key to closing achievement gaps. The U.S. Congress is preparing to take up changes in the so-called “No Child Left Behind” law, and turning more schools over to charter operators may be a feature of the overhaul.

So let’s take a closer look. Who’s really leaving children behind?

Is it public schools, which take all comers — and get blasted when their test scores aren’t up to par? Or elite charter schools like the Knowledge is Power (KIPP) chain, which boasts that 85 percent of its graduates go on to college, but, in fact, many students who start out at KIPP schools never make it to graduation.

Is it Boston’s public high schools, where 19 percent of the students are not fluent in English? Or Boston’s charter high schools, with 2 percent not fluent in English.

Is it New York City’s public schools, where 16 percent have disabilities? Or New York City’s charter schools, with nine percent?

Public school educators also frequently report that students enroll after they were forced to leave a charter school because of disciplinary infractions.

It’s not that all charter schools push out the hardest students. Some make it their mission to help the most challenging students they can find—and often suffer in the test score sweepstakes as a result.

NEA has long supported charter schools that are laboratories for developing new approaches to educating at-risk students—approaches which can then be replicated in the broader public school system.

And some charter schools are unionized. They don’t find their union contracts in conflict with their desire to innovate.

But many of the charter schools with the best test scores and the highest college attendance rates also have high attrition. A 2008 study of five KIPP schools in the San Francisco Bay area revealed that 60% of KIPP students left during their middle school years. So the schools most often touted as proof that charters are the key to helping all children reach high standards—don’t help all students. They help some—those with enough confidence, motivation, and family support to push forward through a demanding program.

“The vast majority of students enter during the 6th grade and then the total number of KIPP students in 7th and 8th grade falls precipitously,” explains Richard Kahlenberg, Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation.

Then they go back to public school.

And the public schools must now cope with all the problems of educating students with less motivation and more of every kind of problem, in a time of slashed budgets. Their funding problems are exacerbated when money is diverted to new charter schools under formulas that may fail to take into account the extra costs of educating at-risk students.

Many public schools do have special programs for motivated students, and they are very successful. For example, there’s AVID—“Advancement Via Individual Determination”—with 120,000 students enrolled in more than 1,500 schools across the country. AVID students get up early, stay late, and work furiously to reach their goal of college graduation and the professional careers that a college degree can open up. And they do great—95 percent of AVID graduates go on to college.

But students who aren’t motivated enough for AVID still go to their schools, and still get as much help as their public school teachers can give.

Some public schools need to change to better meet the needs of their at-risk students–that’s why NEA launched its Priority Schools Campaign.

But charter schools that only work for motivated students cannot show the path to better education for all.