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Election issues: Yes, charter schools work, but largely because of parents

Submitted by on Monday, 29 September 2008 No Comment

It’s begging for bucks week at Big Guy’s school, where two straight days have featured canary-yellow fliers in his backpack touting the latest fund drive or need. Except when everything comes home in can’t-miss canary, your eyes start to glaze over.

Monday, it was candles that make me sneeze and cookie dough Big Guy can’t eat. At least, I’m assuming he can’t eat it — the brochure didn’t include allergy information. It did mention, though, that each student’s sales target is $40 worth of “”product.”"

Today, it was a PTA membership drive plus a request from his teacher for baby wipes and socks.
The fund-raiser flurry struck me as ironic in a week when Barack Obama talked up his education plans, which include doubling federal funding for charter schools to $400 million. It appears to be a new angle in his education policy — charter schools aren’t mentioned in the 15-page policy outline for kindergarten through high schools on his campaign Web site. He’s expressed support for charter schoolsbefore, but not $400 million worth.

At least he’s not suggesting private school vouchers, which John McCain has supported in the past and hints at in recent news releases.

I wouldn’t dare argue that many charter schools — which receive public money but are operated by private companies — fail to show results. We do need, though, to get the stars out of our eyes and look at why they work. When they work, that is. Some fail magnificently.

In the county where I live, the data are enlightening.

The “”elite”" charter school in these parts — the one where parents apply, get tossed into a lottery and hope their number comes up — has had the best standardized tests for elementary students for years.

This year, for example, the average mean score for grades two through five on this year’s California Standards Test in English was 381.95, according to state education department data. I chose second through fifth because the charter school only goes to fifth. That compares to the countywide average of 339.85 for the same grades. Man, isn’t that charter school great!

But let’s look beyond the test scores. Countywide, 20 percent of the students’ parents lack even high school diplomas and only 10 percent have bachelor’s degrees, according to that same state data. At the charter school, not a single student’s parents were drop-outs and only 12 percent stopped at high school diplomas. A full 21 percent, though, are college graduates.

Does anyone besides me see a possible link? Is it possible that a higher percentage of college graduates at the charter school had something to do with higher scores?

The trend today is to say that parental involvement is a bigger factor than parental education in determining a child’s success in school. I won’t argue with that either. But which parent is more likely to be involved: A drop-out trying to eek out a living and not having the background to know what it takes to succeed in school? Or the college graduate who can afford preschool or a stay-at-home parent to set the academic stage in the early years?

That question needs to be considered before we get all doe-eyed about charter schools. Especially in a time when kindergarteners are expected to peddle “”product”" to raise money for public schools.

Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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