Celebrating Charter School Successes: This Week and Every Week

Every child deserves an excellent education. Unfortunately, there are many children in this country that, because of their neighborhood or socio-economic status, do not have access to a school that will prepare them to succeed in college and a career. On a national scale, only one in 10 students from low-income families will graduate from college. Internationally, the United States fails to compete with the world’s best. According to a recent study by Pearson Education, the United States does not even crack the top 15 in educational performance amongst countries in the developed world.

However, there are a group of schools that are demonstrating that all students can achieve at high levels. Public charter schools, schools with site-based governance that have the flexibility to implement their own unique vision for education, are showing over and over that they can provide a path out of poverty for thousands of students. I know this because I started the New America School, a charter school that helps 16-21 year-old new immigrants learn English and earn a high school diploma. I saw firsthand how our ability to tailor our curriculum and student supports to the needs of our community helped us attract dropouts back into school. 

This week, thousands of families are celebrating Charter Schools Week. These families are enrolled in small charters or schools operated by larger charter management organizations (CMOs) that are all free, open-enrollment public schools that tend to operate in underserved urban communities. Many are celebrating their childrens’ growth and achievement gains. For instance, a recent Mathematica study found that the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), which has 125 schools in its network across 20 states and the District of Columbia, has a consistently positive learning impact across all four academic subjects for all measureable subgroups. In Texas, families of students enrolled in YES Prep are celebrating college admissions, in neighborhoods where 90 percent will be the first in their families to go to college.

Unfortunately, many families are not celebrating this week because the supply of these innovative schools has not kept up with demand. Some of the most successful public charter school networks, including KIPP, Denver School of Math and Science, and Aspire Public Schools, are not able to expand and grow to serve more families. The twenty-four highest performing charter management organizations (CMOs) serve about 154,000 families in 400 schools across 23 states. However, 126,000 students remain on waitlists to enter these schools and are forced to attend a different school that is the parents’ second choice at best. This is completely unacceptable. 

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I came to Congress to ensure that more students have access to quality schools. Yet inhospitable charter school laws and discriminatory policies towards these schools stand in our way. Public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of expanding and replicating schools with demonstrated results. Many states, like Massachusetts, have a cap on the number of charter schools that can open in their state. However, in a 2013 poll of 625 registered voters, only 23 percent of respondents supported keeping current limits on charter schools. Because charter schools are not afforded the same funding as traditional public schools, many need state and federal support to start new schools, replicate high-quality schools, and access facilities. 

That’s why I will soon introduce the All Students Achieving through Reform or All-STAR Act. The bill will ensure that every state, district, and charter authorizer has the ability to access federal funds to start new schools and replicate high quality schools in their communities. It will also provide grants to individual charter schools and charter management organizations with proven results to expand and replicate to serve more students. The bill will focus resources on serving those areas most in need, and provide incentives for states to lift arbitrary caps on the number of charter schools. Not all charter schools perform well and as such, the All-STAR act will promote stronger charter authorizing practices to make sure weak applications don’t move forward and to ensure better quality control through performance-based accountability.
Students and families cannot wait for the supply of high quality schools to catch up with demand. These schools want to serve more students in poverty, but rely on public resources to fulfill their ambitious future growth plans. In an era of tight budgets, the federal government should expand investment in educational solutions that have proven successful for students and families, while fueling new approaches with the potential to achieve greater gains.

I will do my best to ensure that next year, thousands more families can join me in celebrating National Charter Schools Week. 

U.S. Representative Jared Polis
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Jared Polis is an independent leader who uses his private and public sector experience to find pragmatic solutions to the challenges facing Colorado and the nation. First elected to represent Colorado’s Second Congressional District in 2008, Polis serves on the powerful Committee on Rules, the Committee on the Education and the Workforce, and the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. Polis believes that education is the single most meaningful investment America can make in its economic future and in its people. His efforts in this area focus on getting accountability right at all levels, expanding educational models that work, and improving persistently failing schools with data-driven models to reduce achievement gaps.