Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Universal Pre-K and Charter school success

Recently I was bemoaning the fact that in education policy it is incredibly difficult to replicate results in different districts or states. There are just so many factors that effect education it is impossible to control for them all and thus it is difficult to establish causation. There are however two areas where we know if we focus resources we can see significant returns.

One area that we know works is universal Pre-K. As Nobel-laureate University of Chicago economist James Heckman noted in the Wall Street Journal in 2006,

It is a rare public policy initiative that promotes fairness and social justice and, at the same time, promotes productivity in the economy and in society at large. Investing in disadvantaged young children is such a policy. The traditional argument for providing enriched environments for disadvantaged young children is based on considerations of fairness and social justice. But another argument can be made that complements and strengthens the first one. It is based on economic efficiency, and it is more compelling than the equity argument, in part because the gains from such investment can be quantified -- and they are large.

There are many reasons why investing in disadvantaged young children has a high economic return. Early interventions for disadvantaged children promote schooling, raise the quality of the work force, enhance the productivity of schools, and reduce crime, teenage pregnancy and welfare dependency. They raise earnings and promote social attachment. Focusing solely on earnings gains, returns to dollars invested are as high as 15% to 17%.

Universal Pre-K is wise investment. The Denver program is still in it's infancy but the Denver Public Schools system and consequently the city of Denver and the state of Colorado will start to reap the benefits of this system in just a few years.

Beyond universal Pre-K we see that charter schools do indeed work. Today's Denver Post has an article today on the success of the DPS charter schools and the increased parental demand for more charter schools,

Like other urban districts, Denver Public Schools has had trouble educating the city's poorest students. But two charter middle schools on the city's west side have proved it can be done.

The success of KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy and West Denver Preparatory Charter School is spurring a charter renaissance. At least a dozen charter schools are being planned for the city over the next decade based on high-performing models.

At the same time, a group of charter advocates is joining forces with plans to add dozens more schools to teach low-income urban youth on Colorado's Front Range.

I have never really understood the vehement opposition to charter schools from some in the Democratic party. Here in Colorado the lines were generally drawn between the Boulder Dems who opposed the schools and Denver Dems like House Majority Leader Terrance Carroll and Senate President Peter Groff who often crossed the aisle to support the charters. As one prominent state pol said to me, of course the Boulder Dems don't support charters - they already have good schools.

The point being that Boulder is not an urban setting. It's population is wealthy, educated and overwhelmingly white. DPS faces numerous socio-economic challenges in its student population that other districts in the state simply do not face.

Charter schools give parents some choice in the education of their children while ensuring that public money is remaining in the public system. It's the best of both worlds, accountability and choice. The success of charter schools is something that should be heralded by both parties and the further expansion of charter schools should be encouraged and aided by state and local policy makers.

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