OAKLAND, Calif. – As cash-strapped school districts lay off teachers and close campuses, publicly funded charter schools are flourishing and altering the landscape of public education.
Despite a painful economic downturn, the charter school movement is expanding rapidly across the country with support from the Obama administration, wealthy donors such as Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, and the highly publicized documentary "Waiting for Superman."
Charter schools typically receive a mixture of public and private money and operate free of many regulations that govern traditional public schools in exchange for achieving promised results.
Nationwide, less than 4 percent of public school students are enrolled in charters, but that number is expected to rise significantly because of increased financial and political support.
More than a dozen states loosened restrictions on charters over the past year for a chance to win a share of the federal $4.3 billion Race to the Top school reform competition.
The number of charter schools grew by 6.7 percent to 4,936 in 2009-2010 and is projected to increase by 7.5 percent in the current school year, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
The 2010-11 growth is expected to be dramatic in states such as Florida with a 12 percent increase, Illinois with a 14 percent rise and New York with a 20 percent jump, according to the association's projections.
"Families that have options are increasingly choosing charter schools over traditional schools," said Peter Groff, who heads the national association.
California saw a 15 percent increase, with a 115 new campuses despite budget woes that led to mass teacher layoffs and shuttered traditional schools, according to the California Charter School Association.
Many charter schools are boosting the academic achievement of disadvantaged students, but critics say charters siphon students and resources away from traditional public schools, result in greater racial segregation, block access to certain groups of students and operate without proper oversight.
"What we're seeing basically is an effort to impose deregulation and the free market into education," said Diane Ravich, an education historian at New York University. "The fascination with charters among philanthropists and Wall Street has diverted the attention away from tackling the hard problems of public education."
Charter schools are growing most rapidly in urban districts with struggling schools and large numbers of poor, minority students. In 16 districts, more than one in five public school students attend charters, with 36 percent in Detroit, 38 percent in Washington, D.C. and 61 percent in New Orleans, according to the national alliance.
Much of the growth is being driven by charter management organizations that have received multimillion-dollar grants from the Obama administration and foundations funded by philanthropists such as Gates, Charles Schwab, Eli Broad and Reed Hastings.
San Francisco-based KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, plans to double its national network of schools to 200 over the next decade.
Aspire Public Schools, California's largest charter school operator with 30 campuses, plans to open as many as 45 new campus over the next decade, said CEO James Willcox.
The Oakland-based nonprofit, which offers kindergarten through high school, was recently named one of the world's 20 most improved schools systems — one of only three in the U.S. — by the consulting firm McKinsey and Co. after producing impressive results on standardized tests.
Aspire officials say nearly all of its students are accepted at four-year colleges, and most are their first in their families to attend. They attribute that high rate to smaller schools and class sizes, a longer school day and school year, and its relentless "College for Certain" culture.
"Our entire program from kindergarten all the way through high school is geared toward getting youngsters to go to college and get a college degree," Willcox said.
At ERES Academy, an Aspire K-8 school in Oakland, every classroom is named after a college and students eat in University Hall.
Jorge Lopez, a senior at California College Preparatory Academy in Berkeley, said he didn't think college was possible for him before he came to the Aspire-run high school. He's now poised to be the first in his family to get a college education.
"Upon coming here I found out that college is where you want to be at," said Lopez, 17. "My parents tell me it's an honor that I'm leading the family, that I'm being an example for them."
But not all charter schools produce strong academic results.
A 2009 study by Stanford University found that only 17 percent of charter schools performed significantly better than traditional public schools while 37 percent performed worse and 46 percent showed no big difference.
A 2010 study by the UCLA-based Civil Rights Project found that charter schools tend to be more racially segregated than traditional schools.
"Charter schools are publicly funded schools, and we need to make sure students of all backgrounds have access to them," said study co-author Erica Frankenberg, an education professor at Pennsylvania State University.
Oakland Unified School District has seen a major expansion of charters over the past decade, when it spent years under state control because of financial mismanagement. The district is now home to more than 30 charter schools.
Betty Olson-Jones, head of the Oakland teachers union, complains many charters recruit top students and get rid of poor performers, boosting the schools' test scores and saddling traditional schools with a disproportionate number of students with disabilities, behavior problems and poor English language skills.
"You end up with schools that are filled with kids that are really struggling," Olson-Jones said.
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