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

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“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.