The Debate Must Move On; Charter Schools Are Here to Stay

Monday, December 09, 2013 - 04:00 AM

Students at Young Scholars Academy in September, 2012. (Stephen Nessen)

“Charter school” continues to be fighting words in education circles and beyond, even as the publicly financed, privately run schools have substantially grown in size, number and popularity since they first came on the scene in the early 1990's.

Charters now serve two million students in 42 states and the District of Columbia. A Phi Delta Kappa-Gallup poll finds that Americans overwhelmingly support new charter schools in their communities. Most would approve of a large number of charter schools nationwide, and the majority believes public charters provide a better education than other public schools.

The public embrace of charter schools offers a tremendous opportunity to improve our education system. But first, let’s examine charter schools systematically. Instead of simply asking, “Are charters good or bad?” we should seek a more nuanced understanding of how charters really work, what impact they are having – good and bad – and why. Because, like it or not, charters are here to stay.

Recently my colleagues Joanna Smith (University of Oregon) and Caitlin C. Farrell (University of California-Berkeley) and I have looked at some hot-button questions about charters. What we’ve learned may surprise critics and supporters alike.

Autonomy: Charters, for the most part, are no longer grassroots local efforts created by impassioned parents and community leaders. Increasingly they are run by Education Management Organizations (EMOs) and their non-profit counterparts, Charter Management Organizations (CMOs). CMOs in particular have received a huge infusion of philanthropic money. They often perform well – in California, six of the top 10 performers among charter elementary/middle schools were run by CMOs – but remain insufficiently studied.

Innovation: Charters are valued as education laboratories, yet most do little to tap the potential of unique, innovative strategies. For all the hype, charters typically borrow familiar classroom strategies (back-to-basics, project-based learning, college prep) from private and traditional public schools.

Cost-effectiveness: Here the stereotype proves true: With freedom from specified pupil-teacher ratios, requirements to maintain certain school positions, and mandatory salary scales and raises, charters are substantially more efficient than non-charters. In California, nearly 70 percent of charters are investing 60 percent or more of their budget directly into teacher salaries and benefits, textbooks and educational software and curriculum, a 12 percent jump from last year.

Creaming: Despite fears to the contrary, there is little evidence that charters systematically siphon the best and brightest students away from traditional schools. A recent national study of KIPP charter schools found no strong evidence of a selective admissions process. Another recent study confirmed that charter school lotteries in New York City are completely random. But charters do serve students who have not been well-served by traditional public schools. Concentrated in urban school districts, charters enroll large numbers of minority, poor, and at-risk students. In the recently released USC School Performance Dashboard, which evaluates California charters based on financial health and academic performance, the top 10 charter elementary/middle schools all serve large populations of poor students.

Racial segregation: Are charters more segregated? The great diversity of schools and the immense variance in the state and local rules that govern them make it impossible to generalize. For example, 16 states require charters to reflect the diversity of surrounding communities. Elsewhere, charter admissions policies favoring siblings can perpetuate racial imbalance.

And, finally, the bottom line: student achievement. Do charters outperform traditional public schools? In certain cities – New Orleans, New York City – the answer is yes. In California, charter high schools far out-pace traditional public schools in curricular rigor, with 42 percent of charters offering college prep math and science courses versus 20 percent of traditional public schools. But overall, charters tend to be over-represented at the higher and lower ends of student achievement. Which raises the question: Why aren’t we replicating schools at the high end, and why don’t authorizers close schools at the low end?

Clearly, charter schools aren’t going away. They offer families more public school choices. But is the charter model truly scale-able? Do we have enough teachers and principals willing to work in charter schools where the length of the school year and school day are longer than traditional public schools? Will CMOs supported by the philanthropic community keep expanding when the money dwindles? How can charter and traditional public schools collaborate to improve all public schools?

These are the questions that need to be debated, not whether charters have the right to exist or expand. If we don’t search for answers now, charters could end up replicating many dysfunctional aspects of low-performing district schools. Given the promise they show and the rare public consensus that they belong, that would indeed be a wasted opportunity.


Patricia Willens


Priscilla Wohlstetter


Comments [3]

Priscilla Wohlstetter from Teachers College, Columbia University

Thank you to the parents who commented on my blog. I am responding to clarify a few things.

First, you are correct in that SOME of the data cited in the article are from the USC School Performance Dashboard, which rates only California charter schools. As noted in the article I founded and produce the annual Dashboard -- it has been published since 2006. The data associated with the Dashboard are directly attributed to that source in the blog. A copy of the Dashboard report and online, interactive portal can be found here: Discussions are underway in NY and TX to produce similar dashboards in those states.

So what are the other information sources I used to write the blog?

I recently co-authored a book on charter schools entitled, "Choices & Challenges: Charter School Performance in Perspective", which was published in 2013 by Harvard Education Press. The book, which was supported by funding from the US Department of Education, was based on a comprehensive review of empirical research that has been conducted on charter schools.

Our literature review was comprehensive in that it synthesized research on charters since 1991 when the first charter school law was passed. It also sought out empirical research without respect to geography -- e.g., research that conducted studies in NYC were included with research from many other states and localities.

In sum, we were agnostic about the geographic area the research covered. As it turned out, all jurisdictions that have enacted charter school laws and have charter schools operating were included. Our methods for identifying the national database of charter school research is provided in the appendix of "Choices & Challenges."

Thank you for taking the time to comment. I hope my response clarifies the sources I tapped for the blog. I also hope you read "Choices & Challenges" and post your reviews on Amazon!

Dec. 18 2013 03:02 PM
NYS Parent from upstate NY

"Priscilla Wohlstetter is Distinguished Research Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and co-author of “Choices & Challenges: Charter School Performance in Perspective” (Harvard Education Press, 2013) with Joanna Smith and Caitlin C. Farrell. She also founded and produces the USC SchoolPerformance Dashboard, an annual report on the performance of California charter schools."
It is misleading for Ms. Wohlstetter to say:"In the recently released USC School Performance Dashboard, which evaluates California charters based on financial health and academic performance, the top 10 charter elementary/middle schools all serve large populations of poor students." without mentioning that she produces that report. She also claims "Another recent study confirmed that charter school lotteries in New York City are completely random." without proving the name of the study. I doubt this would be acceptable from her students at Columbia.
I agree with parent from Brooklyn that there is plenty of data showing how charter schools segregate, cream, and take essential funding from public schools.

Dec. 12 2013 10:06 PM
Public school parent from Brooklyn

I'm not sure why this article for WNYC (NYC!!!!) is looking at California data when the NYC data tells a less nuanced, more clear story of charter schools costing MORE than public schools when co-located, significantly impacting the budgets of neighborhood public schools, and absolutely creaming the more engaged families. The majority of charter schools in NYC have fewer IEPs, fewer ELLs, and fewer FRLS. You just have to look at the local data to see that that's true. The charter school industry has a tendency to aggregate and disaggregate data when it suits their purpose. Look local and you'll see the real story. Public school parents and public education advocates simply disagree that charter schools, in their rapidly proliferating, increasingly corporate manifestation, are here to stay. The more people learn about them, the angrier they become at the undemocratic theft of public dollars.

Dec. 11 2013 11:11 AM

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