Not a Lincoln, More Like A Ford

Kipp Ujima Village Academy, a public middle school in a down-on-its-luck Baltimore City neighborhood, posted the state’s highest standardized math scores in 2006 among seventh and eighth graders. Not the highest in Baltimore City, not the highest in the Baltimore area, but the highest in the state. You’d think the Baltimore City School system would crow about the achievement and use it to pry more money from the General Assembly.

Alas, not. Kipp Ujima is a charter school. The ‘not invented here’ mindset that has all but sunk the domestic car industry appears to grip the education establishment as well. A 99.7 percent minority school in a poor neighborhood has out-scored every single solitary middle school in the state bar none and the minority achievement gap chin-strokers continue to stroke their chins as if this amazing fact had no relevance to the issue.

The story goes that during the Civil War, someone complained to President Lincoln about General Grant’s excessive drinking. Lincoln allegedly responded by inquiring as to the specific brand he drank, so he could buy a bottle for each of his other generals. Lincoln was not, of course, endorsing the consumption of hard liquor by his generals (if indeed the story is true). The point of the story is that Lincoln judged Grant by results, rather than by whether Grant’s behavior comported with the conventions of the time.

In the case of public schools, charter shmarter. There shouldn’t be one list for charter schools — on which is imposed, let’s be honest, a de facto less forgiving standard — and one for centrally managed schools. Charter schools are more different from each other than, say, Kipp Ujima is from a high achieving school managed from North Avenue. That’s the point of charter schools — variety.

Grouping schools by whether or not they are run as charters is like grouping schools by the number of students they enroll. It has a surface plausibility, but it doesn’t bear the weight of logic or common sense. Schools should be ranked and held accountable based on one standard: how well or how poorly they educate their students.

School board members are confusing the question of whether a particular charter school is good with the question of whether the charter school concept is good. It’s their job to ask the first question — about charters and about every other school in the system — but it’s not their job to ask the second. The Maryland General Assembly has answered that question for them.

As an aside, if school board members can’t resist engaging in an enhanced scrutiny of charter schools, they should do just that, enhance their scrutiny. That means visiting as many charter schools as possible and talking with charter school parents and teachers.

Charters are attracting students from outside the system, and almost all charter schools in the city are oversubscribed, which means that parents are favoring them over schools managed from North Avenue. Also, charter schools seem to have higher teacher retention rates than other schools in the system. That suggests that working conditions in charter schools may be better than in other public schools. The school board can’t responsibly make policy affecting charter schools — not least affecting funding — without first understanding why parents and teachers seem to like charter schools so much.

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