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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The trouble with charter schools

California's 1992 Charter Schools Act, according to legislative intent, was supposed to improve learning, especially for students underserved by public schools; encourage innovative teaching methods; expand parental choice; and hold schools accountable for measurable pupil outcomes.

Unfortunately, the law has had little effect on public education. More than 900 charter schools now operate in California. Despite their growing numbers, there's been only glacial yearly improvement in statewide student test scores. The achievement gap separating students of color or low-income from white or wealthier classmates remains virtually unchanged.

The 17 charters in Escondido, San Marcos, Oceanside and Vista enroll 6,000 students, 9 percent of the area's public school enrollment. Half are enrolled at the three Classical Academies or at Guajome Park Academy.

Seventy-four percent of Classical Academy students and 40 percent of Guajome Park students are white, compared with 26 percent of the total enrollment in regular public schools in the four cities.

While 60 percent of the area's traditional public school students are economically disadvantaged, 13 to 21 percent of Classical Academies students are from low-income families, 42 percent of students attending Guajome Park.

The Charter Schools Act allows parents a choice of public schools at no extra cost. So why don't more low-income families choose charters?

Maybe it's because of the home schooling requirement of most North County charters. Low-income families are more likely to be single-parent homes or dependent on both parents working full time. Many parents also may lack the formal education or English language fluency required to home school their children.

Do North County's charter schools provide a measurably better education? Not when it comes to mathematics, particularly in algebra, the gateway course for preparing students for college and jobs that pay well.

The number of eighth-graders testing proficient in Algebra I on 2010 California Standards Tests ranges from 15 to 31 percent in the Classical Academies. It's just 27 percent at Guajome Park.
By comparison, in the San Marcos Unified School District it's 68 percent. In Vista, Escondido and Oceanside it's 60 percent, 52 percent and 41 percent respectively.

Only Escondido's Heritage Charter, at 75 percent, and Charter High School, at 55 percent, have higher algebra proficiency rates than the area's other public schools. Neither requires home schooling.

A 2009 Stanford University study found that reading and math gains of California charter school students were either mixed or no different from their peers in traditional public schools.

Which North County schools live up to the lofty goals of the Charter Schools Act? You’ll find the answer by comparing their student test scores by family income and ethnicity with those of similar students attending your local district’s other public schools.

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