President-elect Joe Biden’s education secretary nominee, Miguel Cardona, opens a new chapter as that of Trump-appointee Betsy DeVos’s closes. Should the Senate confirm Cardona, it will fall to him to “ensure that no child’s future is determined by their ZIP code, parents’ income, race, or disability,” as the Biden-Harris platform put it.
Stubbornly high achievement gaps between disadvantaged students and their more affluent peers continue to frustrate the realization of such ambitions.
In the nation’s capital, achievement gaps have been narrowed as the share of students in public charter schools has increased and the government-run school system reformed, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. But much more needs to be done.
In 2019, the District of Columbia still had the largest differences between white and black students in average NAEP scores for fourth graders in math of all the U.S jurisdictions that NAEP studied, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, New York City, and Baltimore. The same disheartening pattern holds for fourth grade reading scores and also eighth grade reading and math results.
Erasing these tragic attainment differences requires a commitment to deliver high-quality public education in urban America, where it remains scandalously scarce. It also necessitates a diverse approach that recognizes that one-size-fits-all has not served vulnerable students well. In this regard, experience with and understanding of all types of public school — government-run and chartered — is invaluable.
Charters are free, open-enrollment, taxpayer-funded public schools that operate independently of traditional school districts. They are free to develop their own school curriculum and culture and are held accountable for improved student performance. Charters educate 7% of the nation’s public school students, and nearly six in 10 charter schools are located in urban areas, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Cardona is a public charter school authorizer in his current role as Connecticut commissioner of education. If confirmed by the Senate, Cardona will be the third education secretary to have overseen charter authorization work, following Obama appointees Arne Duncan and John King. This matters because of what charters have achieved.
In D.C., where nearly half of all public school students are enrolled at charters, significant gains have been made among the most disadvantaged students. In the city’s two most underserved wards, public charter school students are twice as likely to meet or exceed state standards for college and career preparedness as students in the traditional school system.
Citywide, black charter students post an average on-time high-school graduation rate 12 percentage points higher than their counterparts in the government-run school system. Latino charter students’ rate is 17 points higher, and English language learner charter students’ rate is 23 points higher.
Among vulnerable “at-risk” students, defined in the District of Columbia as homeless, in foster care, in receipt of government income or nutritional assistance or enrolled at a grade level below that designed for their age, charter students’ graduation rate is 18 points higher than those in city-run schools.
Charters accomplished this with fewer city dollars per student than the city provides its traditional school system, despite a legal requirement for equal per-student funding for charters and the D.C. Public Schools system. The city provides each DCPS student $13,335 more per year than its charter students, a recent University of Arkansas study found. In spite of this comparative lack of funding, there are nearly 11,000 students on waitlists for charters that are unable to accommodate them.
District public charter schools educate a higher share of black and Latino students combined than the government-run system. And the 66 nonprofit groups that operate 128 campuses in the district are, by choice, disproportionately located in the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.
These unique public schools are popular with families the new administration relied on for support in the presidential election. Some 58% of black and 52% of Latino Democratic voters have a favorable view of public charter schools, polling revealed.
Charters will be a critical tool to raise college enrollment for low-income high school graduates, which tragically has dropped 29% during the pandemic, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data finds. Months without in-person learning has taken its toll on these students’ education, compounded by a lack of access to computer equipment and online connectivity. The pandemic also has disproportionately affected them in other ways, placing families at greater risk due to housing discrimination, poverty, inequitable and discriminatory healthcare, food deserts, and health comorbidities.
Fully utilizing public charter schools’ potential is essential to realizing those ambitious Biden-Harris platform aims.
Terry Eakin is a board member of the DC Charter School Alliance and founding board chair of DC Prep, a District of Columbia public charter school.