What is the big deal with charter schools? Lately I have been looking into the experiment in charter schools, and I have had to conclude that what once seemed like a good idea with many possibilities has become merely more of the same.
The charter school movement in the United States began about 25 years ago. As originally envisioned, charter schools would compete with public schools, taking public money, but they could be run like a business with less restrictions than public schools. Charter schools could benefit by getting waivers from the plethora of rules, regulations, and mandates of state departments of education. The amount and type of restrictions that can be loosened varies from state to state since education is one of the main functions of state governments. Charters determine their own staffing, curriculum, discipline, and allocation of their funds; some states even allow those without teaching credentials (certificates) to teach.
Charter schools tend to be judged by the same criteria as public schools: graduation rates, college acceptance, and standardized test scores. The biggest difference between charter schools and public schools is the length of the school day, week, and year.
When charter schools first started there were many illegal schemes in states like Ohio, Florida, and California. Most of these scams were weeded out and there has been a rise in Charter School Management Organizations (CMOs). These groups start new charters and guide the new schools. Many of these CMOs get extra funding from large foundations like Gates, Broad, Annenberg, and Walton.
Funding of charter schools can be a source of contention. The allocation of public funds for charter schools takes money away from public schools. Charter schools must accept everyone who applies and when they have more students than they can accommodate, they have a lottery to determine whom to accept. It would not be fair for charter schools to pick the best students and leave the problem students for the public schools. If a charter school can dismiss a student for discipline, this creates an unfair advantage. Special education students need about three times the average funding apportioned to other students. Charter schools have considerably fewer special needs students, yet they still get the same average funds per pupil.
At their inception, charter schools tended to embody progressive ideas, but over time, support for charter schools has shifted from progressives to conservatives. The main reason for this is that charter schools weaken teachers’ unions. Charter schools can do away with tenure and make teachers work long hours for the the same pay. Many states have gotten rid of collective bargaining rules for charter schools. Teachers’ unions are mostly made up of women and have a large share of minorities. It is a major focus of the Republican party to destroy the middle class by paying people who work in schools less that they are worth to society. That is one of the reasons teachers’ unions donate to the other political party.
So how have charter schools done so far? No better than public schools. Although some CMOs have have shown success, the majority haven’t. KIPP has had some success and so has Green Dot, which has started many charter schools in the Los Angeles area, as well as having taken over a few public schools. Having worked under the corrupt, bloated bureaucracy of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), it is easy to understand how Green Dot can manage better than the administration of LAUSD. Overall, one study by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) found charters lagging slightly behind public schools. Perhaps the best study of charter schools is the one from Stanford University titled Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). Based on test scores, this study showed that a few charters were better than public schools, more were worse, but most were the same. It seems evident that competition, utilization of a business model, and lack of regulations has not worked to improve education.
I personally believe that charter schools should still be allowed, but with regulation. State Departments of Education hand down many onerous mandates that interfere with everyday instruction. It would make sense if public schools could also ask for waivers from some of these. Then there would be less need for charter schools.