Don’t con­flate vouch­ers with char­ters

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Dot­tie Lamm

The signs car­ried by the hun­dreds gath­ered to protest the na­tion’s ed­u­ca­tion sec­re­tary, Betsy Devos, in Den­ver last month ex­pressed my own sen­ti­ments ex­actly.

“Qual­ity Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion is a Civil Right”

“Pub­lic Dol­lars for Pub­lic Schools” How­ever, some of the speak­ers I could not ap­plaud. Here’s why.

The demon­stra­tors, led by the teach­ers union, de­lib­er­ately con­flate vouch­ers, which send money to pri­vate schools, with pub­lic char­ter schools that keep pub­lic money in the pub­lic sys­tem. They are not the same!

True, both pro­grams en­cour­age “school choice” and grant­ing to par­ents the right to make them. How­ever, whereas the first could com­pletely de­stroy pub­lic schools in Amer­ica, the lat­ter aims to build them up.

But enough of pro­tes­tors, unions and sys­tems!

It is chil­dren we are re­ally talk­ing about. And most pub­lic char­ter schools are show­ing pos­i­tive re­sults for the chil­dren who at­tend them, whereas neg­a­tive re­sults of­ten oc­cur for those who use vouch­ers.

A re­cent Colorado De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion re­port re­veals that in Colorado, chil­dren in pub­lic char­ter schools — those schools freed from union rules and some ad­min­is­tra­tive de­mands — to fol­low their own goals con­sis­tently out­per­form those in tra­di­tional district schools.

In English 44 per­cent of char­ter school stu­dents, com­pared to 37 per­cent of those in tra­di­tional schools, met or ex­ceeded grade level. Spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion stu­dents and those from low-in­come fam­i­lies also did bet­ter in char­ter schools.

Char­ter schools, which are free to ex­per­i­ment with teach­ing tech­niques and learn­ing styles, of­ten op­er­ate with strict dis­ci­pline, dress codes, longer hours and the goal of the stu­dents at­tend­ing a fouryear col­lege.

In 2016, the 69 per­cent of Den­ver School of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Stu­dents who qual­i­fied for sub­si­dized school lunches scored higher on state stan­dard­ized math tests than non-sub­si­dized lunch-el­i­gi­ble stu­dents in all Den­ver Pub­lic Schools. The DSST Char­ter now op­er­ates on 12 dif­fer­ent cam­puses. (Dis­claimer here: My daugh­ter, Heather Lamm, is an em­ployee of DSST.)

Other cities par­al­lel Den­ver’s suc­cess with char­ters. New York Times writer David Leon­hardt re­ports on how Bos­ton char­ters are out­per­form­ing tra­di­tional schools.

Leon­hardt cites re­searchers form Columbia, Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan and Berke­ley, who looked at thou­sands of char­ter school stu­dents in Bos­ton and found that those who at­tend are: more likely to take AP tests and do well in them; achieve SAT scores 51 points higher than for sim­i­lar stu­dents else­where in the sys­tem; at­tend four year col­leges more of­ten than those at tra­di­tional schools.

The stud­ies also show that many groups that strug­gle aca­dem­i­cally are among the big­gest ben­e­fi­cia­ries. The most strik­ing ob­ser­va­tion comes form MIT re­searcher, Parag Pathak: Bos­ton char­ters elim­i­nate be­tween a third and half of the black­white test score gap in a sin­gle year.

In con­trast, chil­dren who take their tax­payer-funded vouch­ers to pri­vate schools tend to be flail­ing and some­times fail­ing.

A Fe­bru­ary Los An­ge­les Times ar­ti­cle by Michael Hiltzik cites stud­ies from Louisiana, Ohio, and In­di­ana which found huge de­clines of aca­demic achieve­ment in voucher pro­grams in these three states.

In In­di­ana par­tic­u­larly, where voucher pro­grams were pas­sion­ately pro­moted by then Gov. Mike Pence (now the vice pres­i­dent), two re­searchers found that “voucher stu­dents in pri­vate schools ex­pe­ri­ence sig­nif­i­cant loss in math­e­matic achieve­ment and no im­prove­ment in English com­pared to their records at their for­mer pub­lic schools.”

I would not for a minute say that all voucher pro­grams will dam­age chil­dren, any more than I could main­tain that pub­lic school char­ters are a panacea for ev­ery ed­u­ca­tional ail­ment.

Still, my com­mit­ment to char­ters re­mains strong. They are by far the best way for poor fam­i­lies, chil­dren of color, and those stu­dents with dif­fer­ent learn­ing styles to re­al­ize their po­ten­tial.

As for­mer Mas­sachusetts union or­ga­nizer, turned re­searcher and pub­lic char­ter school ad­vo­cate, Su­san Dy­narski, pro­claims: “The gains to chil­dren in Mas­sachusetts char­ters are enor­mous. They are larger than any I have seen in my ca­reer. To me it is im­moral to deny chil­dren a bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion be­cause char­ters don’t meet some vot­ers’ ideal of what a pub­lic school should be. Chil­dren don’t live in the long term. They need us to de­liver now.”


Dot­tie Lamm ( for­mer first lady of Colorado, is the grand­mother four of chil­dren who at­tend Den­ver Pub­lic Schools, one in a char­ter, three in tra­di­tional.

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