Sizing Up the Charter School Movement

Parents try to get their kids off the wait lists while legislators aim for more money.

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It's National Charter Schools Week, and that means lots of chatter in Washington, D.C., about whether charter schools hurt or improve public education. It also means lots of parents asking how they can get their kids off charter school wait lists. That's what one parent did at a news conference this morning when the man half-jokingly asked the president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools if he could make a couple of phone calls to his daughter's would-be charter school. The question made me think about doing a future piece that offers suggestions for those anxious parents. But for now, let's focus on some developments in the charter school movement.

Nelson Smith, the president of the alliance, who—by the way—empathized with the parent of the wait-listed child (but said nothing of using his position to help the man's daughter), had some findings from a recent poll to share at today's event. The organization, which favors the expansion of charter schools, conducted a March poll of 800 registered voters and found a majority of them want more public school options. Interestingly, nearly half of those polled said they are "unsure" about charter schools. After learning from the folks conducting the poll that charter schools are public schools, a majority of the respondents said they had an interest in enrolling their children in one.

U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois also came to bat for charter schools. The Democratic lawmaker took a few minutes from a hearing on the sluggish economy to attend the news conference and talk up a bill of his that would authorize $300 million in new funding for charter schools. Under his proposal, families of students in failing schools would be able to transfer their children to nearby charter schools. President Bush has championed a similar proposal called the Pell Grants for Kids Act that would allow families to send their children to nearby public or private schools. Emanuel's bill doesn't include funding for families to switch to private schools. Taxpayer money, he said, should stay in the public school system.

A little backgrounder on charter schools: There are 1.2 million students who attend charter schools. Most of them are in the "Big Six" charter school states of California, Arizona Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Texas. The majority are minority students and low income. New Orleans is the city with the highest concentration of charter schools. Charter schools, which have been around since the 1990s, are controversial because, among other things, critics say they take needed dollars away from traditional public schools. Some studies have challenged whether in fact charter school students perform superior to their peers in traditional public schools.

But don't tell California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that. Under his governorship, the number of charter schools in the state has increased by more than 50 percent. The former Hollywood action star, along with U.S. Sen. Thomas Carper of Delaware, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Colorado State Sen. Peter Groff, are being recognized for their support of charter schools at an awards ceremony tonight. Perhaps they will have some advice for parents desperate to get their child off a charter school's wait list.

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