By Dr. Cristina de Jesus | President & CEO, Green Dot Public Schools California
Many California children are being cheated out of successful futures even before they get out of elementary school. The thief? Poor literacy education in schools that starts from pre-K and runs all the way through senior year of high school.
Underfunded public schools and income disparity contribute to California ranking at the absolute bottom in the United States with a literacy rate of 76.9 percent, according to the World Population Review.
Low literacy rates lead to real economic losses as students leave school unprepared to take on the challenges of adult life, such as graduating in college, thriving in the workplace, navigating health care systems, helping their own children with their schoolwork, and knowledgeably participating in our democracy. A 2020 study by the Barbara Bush Foundation found that people with low literacy earn half of what those with higher literacy earn.
The COVID pandemic made an already dismal situation even worse. Test scores show only 42.1% of California third-graders reading at grade level in 2022, down from 48.5% in 2019.
But amid this seemingly intractable problem, one group of schools leads the way in doing right by students to ensure they gain the solid literacy and math skills they’ll need to succeed in life and break generational poverty: charter schools.
Most promising, the charter schools that show the best student outcomes in California are those that serve Black, Hispanic, and low-income students. According to the 2023 report by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University, charter school students receive the equivalent of up to an additional 19 learning days in reading over their district school peers, with Green Dot Public Schools California achieving +20 days in reading. This extra attention to literacy drives up test scores for students at charter schools, in particular those operated by charter management organizations (CMOs) such as Green Dot Public Schools California, CREDO found.
Why are charter schools so effective? A recent Harris Poll commissioned by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools that surveyed public and charter school teachers sheds light on how the culture and philosophy of charter schools benefit students.
Charter schools are closing the education gap for students of color and low-income students. Charter schools serve more students of color than district schools (70% to 53%, respectively) and employ more teachers, administrators, and staff of color. Charter schools are more flexible, too, in charting their own curriculum that meets the unique needs of their student body. Absenteeism goes down, and students forge better relationships with their teachers.
This leads to key advantages for students and a sense of value alignment for teachers.
The polling also suggests that teachers and parents work more collaboratively at charter schools, with teachers having a greater say in curriculum and school administration. Charter teachers also say more often than district teachers do that administrators have their back. All this helps motivate charter teachers and leads to greater overall job satisfaction, with 57% of charter teachers saying they are highly satisfied compared to just 23% of district teachers.
Charter schools are also particularly adept at sheltering teachers from political firestorms, which leads to better outcomes for students and teachers alike, the new survey shows. Through their very structure, charter schools are insulated from many of the heated political arguments affecting public school districts. As advocacy groups seek to influence district school boards on a broad range of divisive issues, charter schools escape much of that fray due to their boards, structure and built-in parental involvement.
For California to improve its literacy rates – we’re currently at No. 50 in the nation there’s no way but up – especially, with 57% of California voters now supporting charters, up from 55% last year. educators and policy makers need to take a look at how charter schools get it right and bring those practices into district schools so all children equitably get a strong start. If school boards and educators balk at implementing these necessary changes, then they must ensure that parents can exercise the power of school choice and send their children to the schools where they can best learn and ultimately excel.
Dr. Cristina de Jesus
President and CEO of Green Dot Public Schools California
California Charter School Association (CCSA), Board Chair