By Jim Waters
PETERSBURG, Va. – Petersburg, Virginia is not unlike a lot of small towns in rural Kentucky. Its 30,000 or so residents are predominantly Baptist, proud of their city’s rich heritage and enjoy the economic benefits of being nestled near a major waterway.
Oh, and Petersburg’s schools also were a lot like those in Kentucky – dismally underperforming.
But a mere suggestion from Virginia Gov. Bobby McDonnell a couple of years ago to open a public charter school in the failing district prompted significant changes.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that in 2008, five of Petersburg’s seven schools were unaccredited, according to statewide assessments. By 2009, not a single one of Petersburg’s schools had made Adequate Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind.
Just as in Kentucky, a veritable hodgepodge of ideas was tossed at the walls of Petersburg’s classrooms to see which would stick and turn student performance around.
Whether it was throwing more money at the failing schools, requiring advanced degrees for teachers or forcing each school to adopt a new state-mandated curriculum, every one-size-fits-any-student “solution” was suggested – except for the idea actually proven to work consistently across the nation, including in Kentucky’s surrounding states: competition between schools through educational choice.
Thankfully for Virginia’s young people, their commonwealth is one of 41 states and Washington D.C. with charter school legislation – a big step in increasing quality options for parents and students.
Because four charter schools already existed in Virginia, Gov. McDonnell’s suggestion to establish such alternative public schools in Petersburg carried weight. If the traditional schools did not find a way to improve, they’d soon find themselves closed down and their wasted resources transformed into a quality education by alternative institutions.
Amazing to some – but not to those who understand the marvel of school choice – such an incentive turned Petersburg’s district around, and by the 2010-11 school year, six of Petersburg’s seven schools received accreditation. All of this actually happened without a charter school even being established; it followed a mere suggestion by the governor that a charter could open in the district.
Just imagine if students attending one of Kentucky’s 50 “dropout factories” – high schools with graduation rates lower than 60 percent – were afforded the life-changing opportunities to actually attend such schools.
As recently as last year, a legitimate piece of charter school legislation gained significant political clout in the Kentucky General Assembly, only to be shot down by House Education Committee Chair Rep. Carl Rollins, D-Midway, and the educational labor unions he represents.
These union bosses often succeed by convincing uninformed legislators that public charter schools don’t work. However, they are losing the data battle.
A recent study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) reports that charter school students in neighboring Indiana “ended the year having made the equivalent of 1.5 more months of learning gains in both reading and math than their traditional public school counterparts did.”
CREDO also reports that a student in one of New Jersey’s 70 charter schools gained two additional months of learning in reading, and three in math.
Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby found similar results for charter schools in New York City and Chicago.
It’s no mystery as to why charters outperform their traditional counterparts: charters are exempt from many state regulations and labor union rules that stifle educational innovation. But if they don’t perform, they lose resources and close their doors. Several have, but many more are doing a great job.
With the 2013 legislative session just around the corner, let’s hope our elected officials allow this market mechanism that works so well in so many other states to work its magic here in Kentucky, too.
Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read previously published columns at www.freedomkentucky.org/bluegrassbeacon.