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Charter schools could help close the nation's most harmful gap
It's the space between the schools that do a good job educating children and the ones that don't.

There is a rhythm to the seasons, particularly in Maine. We are on the verge of summer, glorious summer.

The indicators abound. We are greeted every morning with the cheerful sound of robins. The kids along our road have shed most of their clothing – T-shirts are the uniform of the day. Here in Cumberland our church just hosted its annual senior breakfast, the tradition that starts graduation week at the high school.

Weighty things are happening in the world: The North Koreans are once again scaring the bejesus out of all of us; the world economy is precarious; General Motors has been taken over by the government and the United Auto Workers; and Pakistan continues to teeter on the brink of collapse.

Why do I feel so relaxed? It all has to do with the coming of summer. My biorhythms simply refuse to panic at the condition of the world. I feel the siren call of camp.

Nonetheless, some stock taking is necessary. Since the school year is ending, let us turn our attention there.

My old firm, McKinsey, made news a few weeks ago with a comprehensive assessment of American schoolchildren.

McKinsey reviewed both national and international comparative test results at fourth, eighth and 11th grades. They followed this up with in-depth interviews with education leaders here and abroad.

The McKinsey study pointed out significant disparities for U.S. students on four fronts: between black and Hispanic children and white children, between poor and wealthy students, between Americans and students in other countries, and between students of similar backgrounds educated in different parts of the country.

Here's the bottom line: If these four achievement gaps were closed, the yearly gross domestic product of the United States would be trillions of dollars higher, somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 billion to $5 billion higher per day. These are big numbers. This is an enormous achievement gap.

Interestingly, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said the study confirmed that the root cause of these educational disparities was not poverty or family circumstances, but rather sub-par teachers and principals.

In the education world this is incendiary stuff. While it is often acknowledged that the best teachers make a significant difference, there has been little analysis to suggest that good teaching could overcome the kind of gaps the McKinsey report documented – until just recently.

Some of you may have seen the op-ed column by David Brooks in the New york Times of May 8. Brooks reported on a study done by Roland Fryer and fellow Harvard economist Will Dobbie.

The two researchers had found that Harlem Children's Zone schools produced "enormous" gains in achievement – on the order of two to three standard deviations.

In the charter middle school, Promise Academy, the gains of the predominantly minority students were so significant that they actually eliminated the black-white achievement gaps.

Fryer wrote that what this school had done is "the equivalent of curing cancer for these kids." He goes on to lament that we as a nation do not have a way to replicate "this cure" to all students across the country.

Nonetheless, the approach at Promise Academy has elements that are being replicated in other charter schools across the country. Brooks calls this a "no-excuses approach," with strict norms of behavior, high expectations and a longer school day.

Many of these techniques have been documented in a survey, "Sweating the Small Stuff" by David Whitman.

All of this research has some relevance to Maine, as the Legislature is currently debating a bill allowing charter schools in Maine (LD 1438). What, no charter schools in Maine? Yes, Maine, is one of only a handful of states that do not allow charter schools.

Here in Maine, a combination of the powerful educational lobbies, led by the Maine teachers' association and the Maine School Superintendent's Association, have steadfastly opposed repeated attempts to allow charter schools.

Their argument is based on the assertion that charter schools would sap resources from public schools directly or indirectly. In truth, charter schools would allow Maine access to considerable federal funding.

The education lobbies are once again adopting the Luddite approach to change. And they have influence: While LD 1438 passed in the House, it was voted down in the Senate. It is now back in the Senate for another vote.

It is past time for Maine to allow charter schools. Let us hope the Senate sees past the short-sighted views of these powerful lobbies and endorses a charter bill.