Making Charter Schools Work

The charter school debate is hot in today's climate of education reform. To some, charters are a source of innovation in K-12 education. To others, they're a financial drain from public schools without oversight or quality control. Recent studies suggest that if the charter school movement is to succeed, they need to replicate schools that have had positive results - and close ones that haven't.

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Alternative Education

Before we can argue about the merits of charter schools, it's important to understand what a charter school actually is. The specifics vary state by state depending on local laws, but as a group they tend to share certain traits. Charter schools are typically:

  • Nonsectarian
  • Publicly funded
  • Free to attend
  • Operating outside of standard rules and regulations for public education

When a charter school is established, the founders write up a contract or 'charter' that establishes the school's mission, goals, program, methods of student assessment, ways to measure success and students served. Charters are usually granted for 3-5 years, at which point the entity that grants the charter - usually state government or local school boards - will evaluate the school's progress and decide whether or not to renew the contract and keep the school open.

Redefining Education

The charter school movement originated in the spirit of educational innovation and reform. According to the charter-advocacy website U.S. Charter Schools, the root of the term 'charter school' may go all the way back to the 1970s, when educator Ray Budde proposed giving contracts or 'charters' to small groups of teachers interested in developing new educational models. In the 1980s, the city of Philadelphia launched a program of schools-within-schools that it dubbed 'charters,' and in 1991 Minnesota passed the first state-level charter school law. The law basically allowed new schools to use public education funds to pursue alternative methods of education without the oversight of public school bureaucracies. In 1992, the City Academy in St. Paul, MN became the first American charter school, and that same year California passed the country's second charter school law. By 1995, 19 states had laws that allowed for the establishment of charter schools.

US News and World Report Map of Charter Schools in America

From The Explosion of Charter Schools in America, copyright U.S. News & World Report. Original data from the National Alliance for Public Charter schools.

Fast-forward 15 years and the charter school movement has exploded. There are over 4,500 charter schools operating in the current academic year, with only 11 states remaining that don't have charter school laws.

Schools Caught in the Middle

The Great Debate

As the charter school movement has expanded, so has the charter school debate. Because charter schools use public funds but are exempt from the normal methods of public oversight, the schools have attracted a lot of controversy. Many people fear that charter schools are reducing the quality of the country's already struggling public schools by diverting money and resources away from them into a system that's not necessarily all-inclusive or accountable to the community. In response, charter supporters typically argue that the resources are being diverted to innovative and individualized methods of education that can produce better results than the one-size-fits-all public school system. The strength of both arguments hinges on two key issues: Are charter schools truly open to all applicants, and do charter school students perform better than students in public schools?

Charter laws require that schools be open to all students. It's crucial here to understand the difference between publicly funded charter schools and voucher programs, which often get confused. States with voucher programs allow students to take the public funds that would have gone with them to a public school and apply that money to the private school of their choice. Charter schools, on the other hand, are tuition-free public schools that are required by law to have fair and open admissions policies. Furthermore, just like standard public schools, they must recruit from all areas of their community as defined by location, not religious, social or group affiliation. Because most charter schools are small they often have waiting lists, which tends to promote the misconception that students have to meet certain qualifications in order to be admitted. In fact, once charter schools are full, they're required to use a random lottery system for determining which students are accepted.

The question of quality is a lot more complex. In the summer of 2009, Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) published the country's first detailed, longitudinal analysis of charter school student achievement. The study took the most recent data from 15 states and the District of Columbia to assess the performance of over 70% of American charter students. They then compared these students' performance with those in public schools, controlling for demographics and eligibility for special programs. The results? Well, they were mixed.

Quality Curve Comparing Charter School Student Performance with Student Performance at Traditional Public Schools

From Stanford's CREDO Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States, page 8.

The CREDO study looked at charter student performance over time in standard measures of reading and math skills and compared their results to students in traditional public schools (referred to as TPS in the study). As you can see by looking at the curve above, the difference was not dramatic, but the general trend indicates that students are doing better in standard public schools. The study found that just 17% of charter schools demonstrated academic gains that were significantly better than those shown by public schools, whereas 37% reported significantly worse academic gains. A full 46% showed no significant difference whatsoever.

The study found certain specific positive outcomes for students in charter schools. Low-income students tended to show larger and more positive academic gains in charter schools than in TPS. Also, students who were still learning English reported better academic improvement in the charter school environment. However, special education students, another key underserved demographic, appeared to perform about the same in TPS and charters. Finally, the CREDO study found that student achievement tends to progress over time at charter schools. While many students may under-perform their TPS peers in their first year, over the second and third years they often start to pull ahead.

The researchers also noted that charter school quality varies state to state. States where charter students tended to show a significant improvement in performance over students in TPS included Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana and Missouri. States where results were either very mixed or roughly the same included California, D.C., Georgia and North Carolina. States where charter students tended to perform significantly worse than students in TPS included Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and Texas.

These state-based differences appear to be related to the study's finding that the academic success of students in charter schools is affected by state policy. States that cap the number of charter schools that can open show significantly lower results than those without caps, which may be due to the fact that limiting the number of possible charter schools makes it harder for newer, better models to develop. The researchers found another small but statistically significant state policy effect that also supports this hypothesis: States with charter laws that allow for the appeal of previously denied charter school applications perform slightly better than states that do not. Finally, states that have lots of charter school authorizers - for example, states that rely on local school boards to review charters instead of a centralized state agency - tend to perform worse than states with fewer authorizers. This finding suggests that when charter schools are held to more consistent standards they perform better.

The Teacher Debate

Another major point of contention in the charter school debates is the issue of teaching. More specifically, the controversy focuses on teacher qualifications and teachers' unions. Although some states hold charter school teachers to the same state certification regulations as regular public school teachers, many charter laws allow schools to design their own teaching requirements. Critics of the charter system point out that this effectively eliminates quality standards and prevents charter school teachers from being held accountable to the greater community.

The issue of teachers' unions has been exceptionally volatile. One of the many state regulations that charter schools bypass is the hiring of union teachers. Some charter school advocates have touted this as a good thing, claiming that the strong lobbying power of teachers' unions has put teachers' needs before students' needs. Teachers' unions such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) clearly contradict this opinion, both for the survival of their own organizations and out of an active interest in the charter system. One of the early champions of charter schools was former AFT President Albert Shanker, who in 1988 gave a speech in which he suggested that charter schools could be 'teacher-led laboratories of reform' where unions would offer crucial job security to encourage instructional innovation and risk-taking.

This position has been for the most part ignored in the formation of American charter schools, but over the past year this has begun to change. Charter school teachers have started to organize into unions, with a few famous cases cropping up in Chicago, Baltimore and Brooklyn's acclaimed KIPP AMP school. As a rule, the teachers' desires have been pretty straightforward: By unionizing, they hope to create an environment where teachers are fully committed to their schools and able to speak up without fear of reprisal. Although the unionizing efforts have been met with a lot of public controversy, resistance seems to be fairly low within the actual charter school administrations.

Obama and Duncan

President Barack Obama and education secretary Arne Duncan speaking in September 2009 at Wakefield High School

Pushing for Reform

The national interest in charter schools has intensified since Obama took office. The President is an ouspokenl supporter of the charter movement, and charter schools have been a key element in his administration's plans for education reform. The feds have gone so far as to include charter laws as part of the requirements for states to qualify for certain new federal funding programs such as Race to the Top.

However, many education experts have criticized his administration's numbers-oriented approach, suggesting that quality over quantity is the key to making the charter system a successful path to education reform. More specifically, charter-granting entities like state governments and school boards need to get better at knowing when a school should close. At the same time, more studies the CREDO report need to be done in order to understand and replicate what actually makes some charter schools more successful than traditional public schools.

If the national charter movement can improve the ratio of successful to ineffective charter schools, they may become the instruments of educational innovation they were intended to be. However, if failing charter schools are allowed to stay open, the whole movement may wind up as a financial drain on public schools that distracts the community from finding effective solutions to education reform.

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