Wednesday, April 13, 2005 | This is part three in a four-part series. Read part one and part two.
While Brian Bennett, San Diego Unified School District’s director of the Office of School Choice, talks about choice, Coach Dennis Snyder, head of Escondido Charter High School, talks about competition. Charter schools offer both, depending upon one’s point of view.
“‘Education Is Our Business’ is our motto,” Snyder said. “I like that charter schools are held accountable and are not guaranteed customers. Regular schools have a monopoly. But we have to demonstrate that we’re improving learning. I like that whole philosophy.”
“Coach,” as he likes to be called, graduated from Escondido High School in 1961 and has worked as a football coach and world history teacher in the district for 30 years. He opened Escondido Charter High School in 1996 after becoming intrigued by the charter school concept.
The high school, with just under 1,000 students in grades 9-12, offers two learning programs, traditional and individualized, and class sizes average 16 students. Test scores have climbed consistently over the years, and the school now has a waiting list of several hundred students.
Snyder attributes his school’s success to his focus on competition, and knowing he could lose students if his experiment doesn’t work. “We stay focused on what we’re doing,” he said. “We can’t become complacent.”
Escondido Charter High School, located on East Valley Parkway, is the first charter school in the state to build its own campus, which was completed in 2003. To finance the construction, Snyder set aside money every year from the per-pupil funding he received from the state, and the rest was raised from a private bond sale. Snyder’s satisfaction shows when he talks about the facility, which he says offers a safe, clean, modern and inspiring environment for learning.
Snyder has been intent on demonstrating that a quality education on a new campus can be delivered using less money more wisely. “I wanted to prove that it’s not just ‘Give us more money,’” he said.
Snyder, whose charter school receives about the same per-pupil funding from the state as regular public schools do, said about 85 percent of the money goes directly into his school’s classrooms, compared to 44 percent for traditional public education. “My goal was to get more money into the classroom, and it can be done,” he said.
Under Snyder’s direction, another Escondido charter school opened in 2003 with 250 students in grades K-8.
Gary Larson, vice president of communications for the California Charter Schools Association, has coined the term “edu-preneur” to describe charter founders like Snyder, something Snyder would readily agree with. “I like the entrepreneurial spirit charters offer,” he said.
Free from union rules
Many advocates feel the single most important reason why charters offer hope is that they are free from union rules that govern teacher hiring and firing practices, seniority rights, classroom responsibilities and other union regulations that charter supporters say are inflexible and restrict progress.
Said Escondido’s Snyder, “The leadership of unions keeps the [public education] bureaucracy from working the way it should.”
SDUSD superintendent Alan Bersin, speaking at an education forum in San Diego on Feb. 9, said that, because of tight union restrictions, he is unable to offer incentives or pay higher wages for the better teachers to work in the toughest schools where they’re needed most. But with charters, “you can bring on or let go [of teachers] based on performance and not seniority,” he said.
Not surprisingly, reaction from teachers’ unions has been mixed. Although some unions have embraced the charter school movement as a valid way to help improve learning, reception has mostly been lukewarm.
Even pro-charter groups like the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform concede that the movement may need further refinement.
The CER recently reported that 10 percent of charters have been forced to close, up from four percent four years ago, according to the Feb. 2 issue of Education Week. But the CER says the failures are not necessarily triggered by academic issues but often by fiscal problems, mismanagement, low enrollment and facilities’ problems.
Although some charter schools are not raising achievement as promised, studies by the U.S. Department of Education seem to confirm the CER findings. The D.O.E. reports that many charter schools struggle in the early years with financial issues and governance procedures, and seem to provide more gains the longer they are in operation.
Of the more than 630 charter schools that have opened in California since 1992, 61 schools (9 percent) have closed permanently, about half for reasons unrelated to low academic performance, according to Larson at the CCSA. He said common reasons for closure include lack of adequate facilities, under-enrollment and poorly designed programs that aren’t compelling enough for parents or students.
But some, Larson admitted, were forced to close because of low academic performance. Most closed within the first three years, he said. The best way to reduce all closures of charters, according to the CER, is better screening of applicants.
The CER, founded in 1993, calls labor unions “long-time opponents of charter schools” and dismisses their research as biased, saying charter schools are achieving much faster gains across the country than conventional public schools. Unions, in turn, reject many pro-charter studies as faulted.
Even given the mixed results so far, Larson said charter schools remain public education’s best hope for improved learning. And charters, he said, offer alternatives not just for students but also for teachers, whom he considers critical to the movement’s success.
Tomorrow, Part Four: How teachers regard the charter school revolution.
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