I hear that school administrators are telling legislators that the poverty of the children is why so many conventional schools in Washington fail so many children. The Public School Accountability Index shows that in 2011, fully 41.9% of Washington’s schools ranked on the lowest two tiers of achievement, as either “Fair” or “Struggling.”

If I were a legislator, I’d tell school administrators to read up on the success of charter schools.  Many charter schools achieve remarkable success teaching low-income students. They can start with our study, “An Option for Learning: An Assessment of Student Achievement in Charter Public Schools.” Examples of these schools, which are highly successful despite the poverty of their students are: Green Dot charters, Knowledge is Power Program charters, Rocketship charters, Commonwealth Charters, SABIS International charters, and New Orleans charters.

Poverty may be correlated with low academic achievement, but correlation is not causation, and poverty does not cause school failure. Low-income children can and do learn. If low-income children are not learning, the fault does not lie with them, but with the many adult-centered policies that block school principals and teachers from designing and running a school program which meets their needs.

Students at Success Academies charter schools in Harlem, New York are almost 100% minority. About 75% are low-income. Last year, 97% of students at its four schools scored proficient in math and 88% in English. That is more than 30% higher in both math and reading than in New York state as a whole. Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City schools, describes this achievement:

“The Success schools are performing at the same level as NYC’s best schools–gifted and talented schools that select kids based solely on rigorous tests–even though gifted schools have far fewer low-income and minority students. In short, with a population that is considered much harder to educate, Success is getting champion-league results.”

Eva Moskowitz, the CEO of these high-performing charter schools explains how she does it in this video.

If I were a school administrator, I’d tell my legislator to pass laws that allow my school principals to select and train their teachers, to select and innovate with curricula, including online learning tools, to establish the school schedule, and to try out the best methods for teaching children.

If I were a school administrator, I would not be using poverty as an excuse. I would ask for policies that give me the same charter school freedom that Success Academies charter schools in Harlem enjoy. Allowing principals to lead and teachers to teach–this is how legislators can deliver on the promise of public education, that is, to provide a high-quality education to all children, not just to those from better-off families.


[Reprinted with permission from the Washington Policy Center blog; featured photo credit: Merrimack College]