Is it possible to have strong public schools and choice?

ByRichard Barth (op-ed)
KIPP CEO Richard Barth in front of a wall of college pennants

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We asked the same question of three education leaders: Desmond Blackburn, Ph.D., Superintendent, Brevard County, Florida Public Schools; Sydney Chaffee, 2017 Teacher of the Year and teacher at Boston’s Codman Academy; and Richard Barth, CEO, KIPP Foundation.

Here’s what they told us.




This is a question I get asked a lot in my role as the CEO of KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), a national network of over 200 public charter schools that educates 88,000 students from underserved communities in 20 states across the country. It’s also a question I think about a lot as a parent whose children attend public schools in New York City.

My answer is, yes, emphatically. Choice and strong public schools are not mutually exclusive, and we have increasing examples that prove the two can not only coexist, but also thrive together. There is growing evidence in communities across the country that public charter schools are having a positive impact on achievement of students in neighboring district schools.

This summer, a new study of New York City public schools showed that the opening of a charter school can improve student achievement in nearby public schools. Temple University professor Sarah Cordes found that the simple presence of a charter school co-located in a building with a traditional public school has a positive impact on student achievement in the co-located public school. The gains were especially significant for students with disabilities.

In Washington, D.C., the existence of public charter schools has had a positive influence on academic performance across the district. Between 2010 and 2015, as the number of charter schools grew by almost a third, significantly more students attending both district and charter schools met standards both in English and in math. These results refute the assumption that charter schools drag down outcomes for students who attend district schools.

In Denver, the school district has created a collaborative council with local charter schools and built a system where parents can easily enroll in the school of their choosing — whether it is a public charter or district school. Denver Public Schools also share facilities and tax revenues with charter schools, including five KIPP Colorado schools, to allow more resources to flow to public school students. And this approach is working. Between 2010 and 2015, as enrollment in charter schools in Denver grew by 80 percent, test score results in district schools stayed steady and even grew. The end result? More Denver kids are going to more good public schools.

And the benefits of district-charter collaborations aren’t just limited to big urban school systems. In rural Arkansas, KIPP Delta is launching the Delta College Attainment Network (DCAN), a program that builds on existing partnerships with local high schools to provide support for students on the path to and through college. Through DCAN, the KIPP Through College program will expand at two neighboring district schools, Central High and Cross County High, so more students can receive targeted help applying to college and obtaining financial aid. The results of the partnership so far are promising. At Cross County, school officials have seen the college-going rate double since launching its program three years ago, and at Central, the collaboration with KIPP Delta has resulted in 95 percent of seniors applying to college.

We are still in the early stages of learning how charters and traditional public schools can collaborate, but the future is promising. This year public schools of all type — traditional and charter — have come together to make the case for investing public dollars in education. Both traditional public schools and charter schools have advocated for federal, state and local programs that strengthen all public schools, such as initiatives to help schools recruit and train high-quality teachers and federal funding for special education and Title I. We’ve also seen leaders of traditional and charter public schools raise their voices in support of young people, assuring access to higher education for low income families and those protected by the DREAM Act.

From where I sit, it is clear that in communities across the country, high-quality public charter schools are delivering results for students and advocating alongside traditional public schools for investments that are important for us all. So instead of asking whether choice and public education are at odds, let’s ask what we can do to expand and strengthen both. To me the better question is, “How many children woke up in America today and headed off to a great public school? And how can we work together to make sure more of them do?”