School-choice advocates could not have been pleased by this week's news that Fort Wayne's charter schools performed poorly on state standardized tests. Weren't charter schools – subsidized by taxpayers but liberated from the stifling public-school bureaucracy – supposed to improve academic achievement, especially among the disadvantaged?
Well, perhaps they are – even if the progress is not always obvious or defined in traditional ways. And you just can't get much more unorthodox than this: One of Fort Wayne's leading civil-rights figures is determined to close the “achievement gap” between black and white students by stressing proven concepts that have too often been considered less important than the pursuit of “racial balance”:
The Fort Wayne Urban League's Thurgood Marshall Leadership Academy, scheduled to open this fall in the former Zion Lutheran Academy building on Weisser Park Avenue near Creighton Street, will be an old-fashioned neighborhood school, President Jonathan Ray said – one that will stress the importance of academics and aspirations to parents and students alike.
“(Busing) is no longer germane. How effective has it been?” said Ray, no Jonathan-come-lately to efforts to improve minorities' academic performance. When I interviewed him about the achievement gap seven years ago, his message was much the same as it is this week: “The expectation (among minorities) shouldn't just be to get by. It should be to get A's.”
Well, of course. Named in honor of the nation's first black Supreme Court justice, the Marshall Academy would be modeled on a successful charter school in Gary also managed by American Quality Schools. At the Thea Bowman Leadership Academy, Ray said, about 84 percent of black students pass the third-grade ISTEP-Plus test. In the Fort Wayne Community School, meanwhile, about half of black students passed both math and English sections of ISTEP compared to about 74 percent among whites.
Because racism is not the cause of the gap, Ray said, race-based solutions will not close it. Instead, he added, too many low-income and minority students lack the hope, opportunity and dreams that motivate achievement. By stressing a rigorous curriculum, citizenship and commitment to justice, Marshall will try to instill those values in students while also holding parents accountable for their children's progress.
“Within three years, I would hope we'll be at 80 percent (of students passing ISTEP,” Ray added – an achievement that would put Marshall in sharp contrast with charters Imagine Schools on Broadway (37 percent total passage), Timothy L. Johnson (41 percent) and Imagine MASTer Academy (52 percent).
Whether Marshall can achieve such an ambitious goal remains to be seen, but it could be argued that the existing charter schools – despite their poor test scores – have already yielded positive results.
That's because, for the first time ever, ISTEP scores in the Fort Wayne Community Schools have increased three years in a row. The reasons for that are not at all clear (was it better teaching, the loss of some underperforming students to charters or both?), but the bottom line is that charter schools and now private-school vouchers provide the kind of competition traditional public schools have lacked, but desperately needed.
Just last month, in fact, FWCS Superintendent Wendy Robinson acknowledged how that competition has forced FWCS to work harder for funding and to maintain the public's support and confidence. She didn't say that was a good thing, of course, but the improved test scores suggest it is. Complacency seldom produces improvement, and nothing breeds complacency quite like the kind of government-imposed monopoly that no longer exists in Indiana's public schools.
Charter schools and vouchers should be expected to produce equally tangible results.
In the interest of full disclosure I should tell you that, as trustee at Zion Lutheran Church, I have been involved in the lease negotiations with Ray and the Urban League – negotiations we hope are close to complete but not finalized yet. To date, he said, about 200 students have enrolled, many of whom may even walk to school -- just like we did in the old days when schools existed to educate, not solve all of society's ills.
Maybe that's why we seemed to have fewer ills to overcome.