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The Debate Over Charter Schools

The Debate Over Charter Schools
Posted on March 7, 2018 by CHS

Few issues in public education are as hotly debated as charter schools. EdSource defines a charter school as a tuition-free, tax-funded public school that has been given more flexibility and autonomy than district-operated schools. In California, most charters are run by a nonprofit board of directors. According to EdSource, as of the fall of 2016, California’s 1,254 charter schools enrolled 602,837 students – for the first time serving one in ten of California’s public school students.

Proponents of charters argue that they are free of bureaucratic and regulatory micro-management, giving teachers the freedom to design more tailored programs to set high standards and meet the needs of their students. Studies in states that have embraced charter schools, including California and Arizona, show that some traditional public schools are adopting innovations from charter schools and raising the bar to compete with local charters. Critics of charters worry that they divert funding from traditional public schools and that these schools will be replaced by independent, privately-run companies that are not accountable to taxpayers or obligated to educate all students. Critics also often point to the role of some wealthy philanthropists in charter school expansion. The argument is that these individuals may have an agenda to promote free-market principles and undermine teachers unions.

The first charter school opened in Minnesota in 1992. It was the brainchild of Al Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997. Shanker argued that charters would give small groups of teachers a way of trying innovative strategies to reach the at risk students for whom traditional schools were not working. The lessons learned at charters would benefit other schools. A few years after Shanker first proposed charters, he disavowed them, arguing instead that schools will serve students better if they create more standardized goals, similar to the Common Core state standards, which would follow decades later. Today, advocates say charters give teachers the room to innovate, while detractors say they divert funding from traditional public schools and essentially privatize a government function. Some charters have followed Shanker’s vision; however, others have embraced a more market-based approach, rejecting teacher certification and collective bargaining rights in the belief that competition from charters will either replace traditional public schools or force them to improve in order to retain students.

The rise in the popularity of charter schools has impacted both state and federal policy. The President is proposing to increase funding for charter schools by $168 million – a 50 percent increase. He also wants an additional $1 billion for Title I, a program for schools that serve a high proportion of disadvantaged students, which would be used to encourage districts to adopt school choice policies. These policies would allow local, state, and federal funding to follow students to any public school they choose. Nationally, there are nearly 3 million students in 43 states and the District of Colombia enrolled in 6,800 charters. Still, only about 6 percent of total national student enrollment can be attributed to charters. Some cities, such as New Orleans, Detroit, Flint, and Washington, have shifted a large percentage of their student population into charters. The proposed budget policies could accelerate the pace of their growth, forcing state and local leaders to make some difficult decisions on a highly controversial topic.

Critical questions remain over the relative effectiveness of charter schools in improving student performance. Some critics are also concerned about research that shows charter schools are increasingly segregated. Nationally, school segregation by race and class has been increasing over the past two decades. Some research shows that charter schools are more likely than traditional public schools to be highly segregated. Research shows that highly segregated schools hurt low-income children and children of color as the schools they attend have fewer resources, more inexperienced teachers, and limited access to rigorous coursework. Charter schools do not use neighborhood boundaries to determine enrollment, giving them more potential to create a diverse student body. Of the states that allow charter schools, only a third require affirmative action steps be taken to ensure diversity, and those states with such a requirement lack the ability to hold schools accountable. A 2010 study from the University of California at Los Angeles concluded that African-American students in charter schools were far more likely than African-American students in traditional public schools to be educated in a highly segregated environment. The Associated Press found that among 6,747 charters, more than 1,000 had minority enrollment of at least 99 percent in the 2014-15 school year. Some proponents of charters argue that many factors determine school segregation, including housing patterns and geography. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has called for a moratorium on charter school expansion. However, some states with high proportions of African-American students in charter schools are using charters to turn around low-performing districts.

The evidence for performance among charters is mixed. There are clear examples of charters serving high proportions of low-income and minority children, which have achieved remarkable successes. A recent 26-state study from Stanford University concluded most students in charters are doing no better or worse than traditional public schools when it comes to student achievement on standardized reading and math tests. About a third of students are doing better than their counterparts in traditional public schools, and gains among African-American, Latino, and English Learners have been the most impressive. These gains are attributed to the fact that students in charters are getting 3-10 extra weeks of instruction. The methods used and conclusions from the Stanford study, produced by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, has been highly disputed as they did not compare charter school students to actual public school students.

Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), one of the largest private charter networks, claims that they have a high school graduation rate among low-income students that is 20 percent higher when compared with peers nationally. Charters are increasingly popular and in-demand among parents, particularly those who take an active interest in their child’s education. Over 70 percent of charters across the country have waiting lists equal to their enrollment. Proponents argue that parents are demanding school choice. Many charters have a lottery system for admission, and critics argue that this has the effect of essentially “cherry picking” the best students and those with parents who are more engaged in helping their children succeed. Individual state laws can hinder transparency when it comes to monitoring charters. For example, the District of Columbia lacks a sunshine law, meaning that parents cannot access information on how publicly-funded charters are using tax-payer money. 

As charter schools have become more popular and rapidly expanded across the country, the debate about their advantage over traditional public schools has intensified and become increasingly politicized and polarized. Former Education Secretary Arnie Duncan had the following words of wisdom for parents considering the relative advantages of charter schools: “The only thing that matters is if a school is a great school. It doesn’t matter to me whether the sign on the door of a school has the word “Charter” in it, and it doesn’t matter to children. Nor does it matter to most parents.”

For more information on charter schools at the state and national level, parents can visit the following sites:

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