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What the Charter School Movement Means for College Students

Dec 07, 2011

From popular documentary films like 'Waiting for Superman' to President Obama's ringing endorsement, charter schools have become one of the hottest topics in current education. How does their presence affect the college students among us?

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By Eric Garneau

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If You're College-Bound

Are you a charter school student who wants to head off to a university some day? If so, a 2009 Michigan State University (MSU) study has good news for you. According to that study, students in charter schools are 7%-15% more likely to graduate and attend college than their counterparts at traditional public schools. In fact, that study found increased college attendance to be the single largest benefit to enrolling in a charter school in the first place.

Perhaps that's not so surprising. After all, many charter schools emphasize college preparedness and long-term skills more than a typical high school curriculum. Charter schools often view it as their mission to make sure students are prepared for the world after high school.

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Those college acceptance rates cited by MSU can certainly fluctuate from region to region. A Fall 2011 report in Philadelphia's The Notebook showed that the city's charter school students held college acceptance rates from 73% at the high end to seven percent at the low; the average was 46%. Standard high schools ran the range from 2%-53%, with an average college acceptance rate of 24%, a significantly smaller number. Meanwhile, in a famous charter school success story, Chicago's all-male Urban Prep Academy has, for the second year in a row, sent 100% of its graduating class off to college. How do they do it? Administration staunchly insists that all their students earn a bachelor's degree, which finds staff driving students to college campuses and even helping them pay for plane tickets if necessary.

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If You're Already in College

If you're currently a college student, the rise of charter schools might not mean that much to you - at least until you potentially become a parent and have to decide where to send your child. But that's a whole different issue to cover.

Of course, if you're going to college to become a teacher, the charter movement takes on a whole new meaning for you. When you graduate, you'll have to decide what kind of teaching job you want, which could be a tough call to make. There are certainly positives to becoming a charter school teacher. Often, chief among them are performance-based incentives, which can include both higher salaries and other rewards. Although certainly atypical, one charter school in New York started its teachers with a $125,000 yearly salary, higher than what teachers can earn almost anywhere.

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But there are downsides, too. For one, numerous reports exist of high turnover in charter school teachers. According to a University of California - Berkeley study quoted in The Los Angeles Times, 50% of charter school teachers leave their jobs over a 6-year period. A September 2011 study reported in Education Week narrowed those statistics down: almost one-fourth of all charter school teachers vacate their positions after a year. Comparatively, standard district schools lose 14% of their educators. The reasons for this difference are myriad: for one, administrations at charter schools have more power to dismiss ineffective staff. Additionally, teachers will often find themselves taking on more responsibilities in charter schools, which occasionally burns them out.

If as a college student you choose to sign up with the Teach for America (TFA) movement - an increasingly popular choice - your path to charter school teaching may already be set. TFA has special agreements with several charter school organizations, including those in Chicago, to staff schools with TFA graduates. In an August 2011 interview with NPR, charter movement expert and author Steven Brill noted that the same kind of reformers behind the TFA movement are generally the ones championing charter schools anyway.

As the charter school movement picks up heat, more and more pop up around the country - check any major metropolitan area and you're likely to find charter numbers on the rise. Eventually, many of us will probably have to decide how we feel about them - as students, as educators, as parents. Though they're still somewhat of a fringe movement in the educational world, studies have shown that, although they're not necessarily better than traditional schools, they're certainly different. What do you think?

Teach for America has itself generated a fair share of controversy.

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