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Warren’s new education plan hurts students

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The fact that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) lashed out at charter schools in her latest “plan” on education is no surprise. She’s counting on the teachers unions to propel her, and the progressive agenda, into the White House.

Warren called for an end a federal program that helps the most successful charters reach more students — the very charter networks that are proving they can turn out first-generation graduates that not only enroll in college, but earn degrees

Some of the biggest grants go to networks that are partnering with traditional public school districts — the very schools she says she wants to favor — to help them achieve similar college graduation rates for their low-income students. Isn’t that what progressives want charters to be, laboratories of innovations for districts?

And just to make things a bit home-town squirmy for Warren, an $800,000 federal grant helped Boston-based Brooke charters build a high school that seems destined to break all records in college success rates for low-income minority students.

While no one expected Warren to support charter schools, she could have expressed her opposition a lot smarter. Calling for an end for for-profit charters is fine. She could have tossed in online charters as well. Their track record is spotty, for sure. Calling for “tougher scrutiny” of charters — always a crowd pleaser for the swelling pushback movement against charters — would have worked as well.

Calling for the end of the federal Charter School Program, which Congress granted $440 million in its latest budget, may sound like a progressive “gimmie” position to take, but those dollars may rank as some of the smartest money to come out of Washington.

Let’s consider two of the biggest grantees in this year’s awards: The national KIPP charter network got $86 million over five years to create 52 new schools and Texas-based IDEA network got $116 million over the same time period to be used to add new schools and expand grades.

Both networks are key players in the push to raise the college graduation rates for low-income minority students — a rate that’s horrifyingly low. Only about 11 percent of first-generation, low-income students earn a bachelor’s degree within six years of leaving high school, compared to 60 percent of students from well-off families.

The problem is not about enrollment: Over the past decade the number of first-generation students enrolling in college has surged. The problem is their graduation rate, which has barely improved. That adds up to a lot of heartbreak and wasted college loans.

Both KIPP and IDEA are pioneers in reversing that trend. The first KIPP alumni to reach the six-year point graduated at rates well below expectations, which prompted KIPP to use its elaborate data tracking to improve its K-12 practices, develop sophisticated college matching guidance strategies and put together teams that track students through college.

The rising college graduation rates at KIPP show the impact, and now KIPP is sharing those hard-earned strategies in collaborations with traditional districts: New York City, Newark, Miami and San Antonio. A new collaboration with a major urban district is expected to be announced soon.

A similar story emerges at IDEA, which practices what it calls “democratization” of college — making college enrollment, and graduation, routine for all students, even the low-income students in the Rio Grande Valley, where the network got its start.

Today 45 percent of IDEA’s alumni earn bachelor’s degrees within six years, a rate that’s three times higher than expected, given the demographics of their students. And that success rate keeps growing, despite its expansion. Today, IDEA serves 52,000 students in 95 schools; by 2020 it will serve 102,000 students in 202 schools, thanks in part to the federal grants.

This is what Elizabeth Warren wants to cancel?

So if Warren wasn’t thinking of striking out at Brooke, and she wasn’t thinking of harming the promising collaborations we’re seeing between charters and districts around college success, what was she thinking?

Richard Whitmire is a former president of the Education Writers Association. He is the author of six books on education issues, ranging from boys falling behind in school to Michelle Rhee’s time as chancellor of Washington D.C. schools. His latest book is “The Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America.”

Tags Charter schools in the United States Education Educational institutions Elizabeth Warren KIPP

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