by Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – Leaders of charter schools in Oklahoma joined this week’s celebration of “National Charter Schools Week,” looking back on a decade-and-a-half of growth in student enrollment and measurable academic success.
In an interview with The City Sentinel, Mrs. Janet Grigg – president of the Oklahoma Public Charter School Association, commented “After 16 years of having charter schools in Oklahoma, the success of this policy is clear. But there are so many misconceptions about what charter schools are, and what they do. It still amazes me.”
Mrs. Grigg not only shared the story of her own involvement in public charter schools, she also pointed to data from the National Alliance for Public Charters schools (www.publiccharters.org) to bolster her defense, and expressions of gratitude, for state charter schools.
A widespread inaccuracy – repeated often as recently as during the 2014 statewide election for superintendent of public instruction – is that “charter schools are not public schools.” The alliance reports that “as defined in federal and state law,” charters are public schools which are tuition free and open to all. They are nonsectarian and tax-funded like other public schools. Further, they held accountable for meeting the government’s academic benchmarks.
While critics assert charters “cherry-pick” students, most charters are required to accept all students who want to attend. When there are waiting lists, the alliance notes, “the schools are required to hold lotteries, which randomly determined which students will be enrolled.” A revision to federal requirements in 2014 actually allows charter schools to give weighted preference to “educationally disadvantaged” students in such lotteries.
Presently, African-American students constitute 27 percent of charter school enrollment, compared to 15 percent of district-run public school enrollment. Additionally, charters have a 30 percent Hispanic population, compared to a 26 percent Hispanic enrollment in district-run public schools.
Charter schools nationwide get about 72 percent of the per-pupil funding going to regular public schools, while in Oklahoma that starting point for charter school funding is 85 percent of what goes to a regular system.
There are presently 24 Oklahoma charter schools, some of them “virtual” (a growing portion of education in all sectors, public and private). Nearly 18,000 students are attending charters schools in the Sooner State.
In 1999, flowing from the efforts of the late Republican state Rep. John Bryant of Tulsa (http://www.capitolbeatok.com/reports/john-bryant-tribute-to-a-friend) and state Schools Superintendent Super Sandy Garrett, a Democrat, a bipartisan legislative majority created the foundation for Oklahoma’s charter schools.
Gov. Frank Keating signed the legislation and the rest is history. Due to virtual education and systemic grown, charter schoools now serve students from all 77 counties in Oklahoma.
While desired outcomes reflect the record in the vast majority of Oklahoma charter schools, a few of them stand out.
Mrs. Grigg runs Justice Alma Wilson Seeworth Academy, a unique system serving grades 3 to 12, providing alternative education. The late Alma Wilson (first woman on the Oklahoma state Supreme Court) established the school, initially within the regular school system, explicitly to serve students facing challenging life circumstances and difficulty succeeding in the regular public schools.
When the charter model became available in Oklahoma, about seven years after it first emerged across the nation, Seeworth sought and gained charter school status.
KIPP Academy on the northeast side of Oklahoma City also began as a “regular” public school, but under founder Tracy McDaniel became a charter school last decade. Over its history, KIPP has achieved several distinctions. It is the highest-achieving public school in the Oklahoma City area.
In 2009-10, a remarkable 100 percent of KIPP students achieved proficiency in reading and math, with science scores close behind. McDaniel has recently proposed expanding the KIPP model to more sites in the city.
Also in Oklahoma City, Harding Charter Prep, the school Janet Barresi founded (before her service as state schools superintendent), was recently named by the Washington Post as Oklahoma’s most challenging school.
In early May, Dr. Freda Deskin, who founded the ASTEC Charter Schools in OKC, wrote a column for The Oklahoman celebrating the success of the charter concept. As Deskin observed in that commentary, “Here in Oklahoma, we have many reasons to celebrate, as our charters are making great strides in fulfilling the mission of providing an excellent education for students of all backgrounds and needs.”
On May 10, Dr. Deskin will receive a national award in New York City recognizing her work with the Health Corps, thanks to the support for ASTEC’s programs on the part of energy tycoon Harold Hamm.
At another Oklahoma City charter school, Harding Fine Arts Academy, math teacher Jennifer Burris recently garnered statewide attention when she was named the A+ Arts DaVinci Institute teacher of the year.
In the broader picture, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), in 2013, analyzed charter schools in 27 states with information running through the 2010-2011 school year. According to a summary from the national group, “students in charter public schools outperformed their district-run public school peers in reading and performed as well as students in district-run schools in math.”
Additionally, “the study showed strong positive results in both math and reading for many subgroups, including Black students, students living in poverty, English Learners (EL), and students receiving special education services.”
A more recent Stanford CREDO study, in 2015, concluded that in urban charter public schools students “gained 40 additional days of learning in math per year, and 28 additional days in reading over their district-run public school peers.” The gains increased after four or more years in urban charters, as compared to regular public schools.
The national charter alliance also points to research by Mathematica, an independent research organization, that highlights positive impacts for regular public school students who attended charter schools in middle schools grades.
The first charter schools in the United States opened in 1992.
According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, charter schools now enroll around six percent of all public school students across America. More than half (56 percent) of charter school students participate in the free and reduced-price lunch program, while around 1 million students are presently on charter school waiting lists.
In 2000-2001, there were 1,940 charters schools; in the current school year there are 6,830, according to a fact sheet from the national alliance. More than one-half (56 percent) of charter schools are “urban core,” while 26 percent are based in suburbs and only 17 percent in towns and rural areas.
In all, 43 states and the District of Columbia now allow charter schools to operate. While the vast majority (85 percent) of charters are managed non-profit, for-profit management constitutes 15 percent across the nation.
NOTE: McGuigan is a certified public school teacher in 10 subject areas. His current work includes guest teaching at the ASTEC Charter Schools. Previously, he taught at Seeworth a total of seven semesters, including service as Curriculum Director in the early 2000s.In addition to his career in journalism, McGuigan has since 2002 substituted at many public and private schools throughout the Oklahoma City area. In the 1990s, he served five times as guest principal at Martin Luther King Elementary, and was a member of the KIDS (Keep Improving District Schools) Committee of the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools. That committee’s work laid the basis for the MAPS for Kids ballot propositions which voters approved in the fall of 2001.