The Charter Schools Question

The NAACP’s call for a moratorium on all new charter schools is the latest installment of a heated debate about the role charters should play in America’s education system. The press release came on the heels of a tentative agreement between The Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools that includes capping the charter schools in the city at 127, a provision that’s at least somewhat controversial. With similar discussions taking place across the country, the debate is playing out on national and local levels. But what’s the debate saying?

What are Charter Schools?

Charter schools are privately operated but publicly funded, designed to be as accessible to taxpayers as traditional public schools but with less bureaucracy and a greater emphasis on results. They aren’t subject to all the state regulations public schools are, which—at least in theory—allows them to be local and responsive to a degree established school districts can’t match. Since they only receive funding if they meet performance standards, there’s a serious incentive for charters to figure out what works. To parents dissatisfied with the existing system, this alternative can be appealing, and by introducing competition among schools, it gets the backing of free-market proponents. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools attributes the model’s success to two things: innovation and serving the underserved.

But critics argue that charters’ relative freedom is also freedom from transparency. Charters blur the line between public and private institutions, receiving taxpayer money without the scrutiny that usually comes with it. Fraud isn’t uncommon in the sector, and some make the case this isn’t due to isolated behavior but a system that discourages oversight. And without oversight, some of charter schools’ reported successes have come into question.

The first advocate for charter schools in America was Albert Shanker, once the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Shanker saw charters as a way to embrace experimental education and to put teacher input and student needs at the center of the curriculum. Obviously union positions towards charter schools have changed, but what makes them an appealing concept for some today—adaptability, innovation, variety—was a selling point for teachers too. And, in stark contrast to the NAACP’s concern that charter schools contribute to racial divides in education, Shanker was originally impressed by the charter school model’s ability to educate a culturally diverse student body as one.

So what changed? Why have charter schools become such a contentious issue, with detractors like unions and the NAACP and defenders ranging from Barack Obama to Mitt Romney? Rhetoric on all sides can get heated, but what’s the debate about?

Do charter schools work?

The most succinct answer to that is “it depends.”

A study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) puts charter school performance at around the level of public schools, though charters have seen particular success with Black, Latinx and English Language Learner students. It’s hard to generalize about charter schools, though, because they see much more variance than traditional schools. A study of California charters put the majority of schools in the very top or very bottom percentiles of statewide performance; even with concerns about the data’s validity, it’s clear that the quality of charter schools can be a gamble. Charter Management Organizations like KIPP have promising results, but schools such as the Allen Academy in Detroit have closed due to low academic performance.

High variance in the stats is compounded by questions about the stats altogether. Massachusetts State Representative Paul Heroux argues current studies are skewed. “We can’t compare charter school scores to public school scores,” he writes. “That may sound crazy but there is a self selection bias that places students who come from families that take an extra step to see to it that their children do well academically. This confounds the results.” And that doesn’t consider more purposeful distortions: charter schools can use their application process to manipulate their student body’s demographics, and expulsion rates at Chicago charters far exceeded their public school counterparts.

Who’s in favor of charter schools? Who’s against them?

A Michigan State University study found bipartisan support for charter schools in the general population, but interest groups and education activists are much less united. Business groups favor charter schools because they treat schools as businesses, while teachers unions object to charters’ ability to bypass union contracts and to the increased privatization of education. The NAACP’s call for a moratorium on charter schools speaks to the segregation they enable. Venture philanthropy groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation fund charter schools themselves. Donald Trump’s education plan rests almost entirely on charter schools, which some advocates worry turns the issue into a partisan one drawn along the lines of school vouchers.

There’s evidence that support for charter schools follows opposition to teacher unions. Despite major union opposition, areas with a large union presence still pass laws favorable to charter schools. Former mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa penned an op-ed calling for teacher union reform and endorsing charter schools as a way to accomplish it.

Are charter schools for-profit?

They can be, though generally they aren’t. 87% of charter schools are run as non-profit organizations, and the ones that do try to make money are regulated. There’s definitely a private sector influence on charters—the idea of healthy competition is at the movement’s core—but most are not literally businesses, and the ones that are aren’t doing too well. Once major for-profit charter groups like Edison Schools and Advantage Schools have shrunk down to nothing or close to it.

This downward trend does only apply to brick-and-mortar schools. The same research found that online-only for-profit charter schools are booming. But there are issues with online charters that even major charter proponents are aware of: The Walton Family Foundation, which has invested $358 million in charter school development, released a statement critical of online charter performance. Discussions of online for-profit charters is certainly relevant to a broader debate about the charter model, but online education in general has very specific issues associated with it.

Do they drain resources from other public schools?


Charter schools are, essentially, government contractors, and they’re paid from funds that would otherwise go to traditional public schools on a per-student basis: when a student opts to attend a charter, the money follows them, with the public school they were originally zoned receiving a reimbursement for money spent on that student. In theory, this gives charters only the resources it needs based on its student body, though, of course, the effects of this are disputed. Heroux’s op-ed describes the system in Massachusetts: “When a student leaves the district school, the money follows the student but the state gives only a ‘partial’ reimbursement for the loss of that student.”

What oversight exists?

Charter schools need the approval of designated “authorizers,” both at their inception and throughout operation. An authorizer is an organization with a focus on education, which usually means a school board, but can also include government agencies and non-profits, depending on local laws. Charter schools are founded with an expectation of academic success, usually quantified as standardized test performance, and it’s the authorizers who make sure charters deliver. Authorizers also take action if charters are struggling from mismanagement issues.

There’s debate about the efficacy of this system. An op-ed in the Los Angeles Times argues California’s authorizers aren’t equipped for the job, writing “school districts and county education offices were mandated to oversee charter schools by the state Legislature and they are now stuck with a complex task many never wanted to begin with.” And that California alone has 320 different authorizers operating without a single set of guidelines means oversight is inconsistent at best.

Charter school proponents like the Center for Education Reform are also concerned about the quality of authorizers. A 2011 report states “Authorizers…are only as good as the law that creates them.,” but it goes on to say that the more authorizers a state has, the better schools will be: “States with multiple authorizers create the environment for competitive creation of schools and foster a healthier charter climate. Independent authorizers are better at creating high-quality charter schools in such environments, and laws that provide maximum autonomy for the authorizers create incentives for good authorizing.”

Whether voluntarily or decided by authorizers, charters certainly can and often do close. The Center for Education Reform found the closure rate of charters since the movement began in 1991 has been above 15%. Advocates point to this as a sign of accountability, showing that bad charter schools are weeded out, whether by authorizer intervention or internal decisions. Advocates also claim that traditional public schools lack that accountability because they rarely close due to performance, even when that performance is comparable to the most under-performing charters. Skeptics, however, worry about students displaced by these closures.

Charter schools are some of the more visible battlegrounds for American education policy. With roots in free market ideology, opposition from unions, and a spotty record of success, critics have found a lot to vilify. At the same time, their bipartisan support speaks to their appeal as an alternative to struggling public schools and a sort of middle ground to debates about private school vouchers. The statistics paint a less satisfyingly clear picture than either side suggests, though: charter schools can have modest, situational advantages over traditional schools, but that outcome is neither guaranteed nor undisputed. And with such a high variation in charter school success, talking about the average charter school can be difficult for both their critics and defenders. Charter schools are here, with the practice growing and the discussion expanding, but so far, there aren’t any easy answers.

(Photo courtesy of Tom Mrazek)


About Stewart Finnegan

In a perfect world, I'd be a professor who teaches poetry using episodes of mediocre sci-fi procedurals, but for now, I'm just a tutor who watches a lot of TV. I got my BA from Kalamazoo College in English with a focus on creative writing, and someday soon I'd like to go back to academia. Most of my formal teaching training was as a creative writing TA, but I've used those skills professionally more to tutor math and write data entry training materials. And though I'd like to focus my work on what I'm really passionate about (which is Netflix binges and outdated video games, mostly), it's the craft of teaching and writing that keeps me coming back. That's why I'm excited to be a part of High Faluter: I'm finding that academia doesn't just stay in academia. And if I can bring crappy midbrow entertainment into academia too, well, all the better. You can find me on Twitter: @StewartFinnegan