- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 29, 2010

Michiganders are welcoming a first-in-the-nation — a public charter school that trains high-schoolers for careers in the aviation industry.

And youths in the Harlem neighborhood in New York City are being instructed on the importance of civic responsibility and leadership at Democracy Preparatory Charter School.

Whether these schools produce the next Sarah Palin or Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commander of the World War II Tuskegee Airmen, won’t be known for years to come, but they definitely reflect the latest trend in the 20-year-old charter-school movement: specialization.

While many of the first-generation charter schools mimicked their public counterparts in structure and scope, many of the second-generation schools are tailor-made, according to subject matter or populations or moral goals.

“The movement is beginning to expand and grow as parents figure out that public charters are doing a great deal in closing the achievement gap and offering options that public schools don’t,” said Peter Groff, executive director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The West Michigan Aviation Academy, which opens in September, is the brainchild of philanthropist Dick DeVos, a school-voucher supporter who paired his passion for flying with tuition-free education. Students will undertake four years of the rigors of traditional academic courses — and lengthier school calendars.

But what works in Harlem and in Grand Rapids, Mich., might not work elsewhere, advocates said, so the best approach to growing the charter movement rests in the hands of parents and their communities, and the marketplace.

“It will be interesting to see if businesses try to grow their own work force to figure out where the next Bill Gates will come from,” said Mr. Groff, who served until recently in the Obama administration’s Education Department.

The Obama administration’s role in school reform is the subject of a heated debate among school-choice advocates.

Some say the winners of the Education Departments Race to the Top grants were decided on the basis of how friendly states were to unions and the losers were American children.

“I upset my colleagues in the movement,” said Jeanne Allen, executive director of the Center for Education Reform. “But this ‘race’ was about whether you had buy-in from unions.”

She cited Louisiana and Colorado, reform-minded states that have laws to encourage charter growth, but lost out, and states including Maryland that overregulate charters and “impede growth,” but won.

New Orleans, whose schools were ravaged five years ago by Hurricane Katrina, has heavily relied on charter schools to rebuild its public education system. The city was rated No. 1 in the Fordham Institute’s just-released rankings on how reform-friendly a school district is.

“The Race to the Top is not pushing [charter-school] growth,” said Mrs. Allen, elaborating that the charter movement is growing “despite all the troubles and travails.”

Mr. Groff disagrees. He says the White House “has been critical to the growth of charter schools.”

“When you look at states that received Race to the Top funds, 15 raised their caps on charter schools,” said Mr. Groff. “The administration has been critical to the growth of charter schools.”

There are an estimated 5,000 charter schools with an estimated 1.65 million students and waiting lists that average 239 children per charter, according to the Center for Education Reform’s website. Many of them are cookie-cutter schools that replicate traditional schools and fail for the same reasons as regular public schools — poor management and financial oversight.

Mr. Groff said charter-school advocates should focus more on the quality rather than the quantity of schools, and added that he favored “smart growth.”

Because charter schools operate outside the public school bureaucracy, he and Mrs. Allen said, laws and policies should be designed to encourage good charter schools to flourish.

“Low performers should be shut down or moved in a new direction,” Mr. Groff said.

In some states and the District of Columbia, there are charter networks like KIPP, Aspire, Friendship and Civic Builders, while thousands of other charters are independent schools.

Civic Builders, for example, is a network that took over an aging Episcopal vestry in Harlem and in less than a year transformed it into Democracy Preparatory Charter School for civic-minded students.

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