Charter Schools: Education’s New Elixir?

In her new book, Dr. Lisa Delpit suggests that the original idea of charter school has been corrupted.  She explains that originally, charter schools were designed to be “beacons” for educational excellence.  Charter schools were to be designed to develop new approaches to teaching, especially for the most challenging populations of children.  Their results were to be shared with other public schools.

As Dr. Delpit explains, the initial concept has been corrupted.  She explains:

Now, because of the insertion of the “market model,” charter schools often shun the very students they were intended to help. Special education students, students with behavioral issues, and students who need any kind of special assistance are excluded in a multiplicity of ways because they reduce the bottom line—they lower test scores and take more time to educate properly. Charter schools have any number of ways of “counseling” such students out of their programs. I have been told by parents that many charter schools accuse students of a series of often trivial rule infractions, then tell parents that the students will not be suspended if the parents voluntarily transfer them to another school. Parents of a student with special needs are told that the charter is not prepared to meet their child’s needs adequately and that he or she would be much better served at the regular public school around the corner.

Delpit, Lisa (2012-03-20). “Multiplication Is for White People“: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children . Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

We have reported on this blog that two major research studies indicate that charter schools do not perform nearly as well as traditional public schools.  In a study published by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford, hundreds of charter schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia were studied to find out what was the impact of these charter schools on student learning.

Here are some of their findings from the CREDO study:

  • Of the 2403 charter schools reflected on the curve, 46 percent of charter schools have math gains that are statistically indistinguishable from the average growth among their TPS comparisons.
  • Charters whose math growth exceeded their TPS equivalent growth by a significant amount account for 17 percent of the total.
  • The remaining group, 37 percent of charter schools, posted math gains that were significantly below what their students would have seen if they enrolled in local traditional public schools instead.

Dr. Michael Marder, at the University of Texas has studied not only Texas charter schools, but charter schools in other states including Flordia, New Jersey, New York, and California.  He has found that most charter schools do not do as well as the traditional public schools. Here is a video clip of Dr. Marder explaining his research and findings.  Again, the results do not bode well for supporters of charter schools.

On the Schlechty Center website, the author wonders whether charter schools are a good idea run amok.  The author explains it didn’t take long before “the idea of the charter school was co-opted by those bent on introducing more choice and more competition into the American system of education-and, ironically, also as a tool to bring teacher unions “under control.”

And Schlechty asks, like others, “If it is the regulations that are impeding performance, why not change policies and program restrictions for all schools and for all students, not just the lucky few who enroll in this or that charter school?”

Schleckty also says that policymakers must renounce idea that these schools are primarily a means of providing parents and students choice.  Then he suggests:

If one assumes, as I do, that what is needed are schools that encourage continuous innovation and the disciplined exploration of alternative solutions to persistent problems, charter schools such as those now being developed will do little to help us meet the challenges we must meet to ensure that every child will be provided a high-quality education.

Yet, as Georgia State Senator Doug Stoner, District 6 suggests, we are setting up a dangerous system when we enable the state to expand and approve charter schools without approval by local schools.  He puts it this way:

To change the Constitution in order to create a charter school or any “special school” favored by current or future state bureaucrats, and forcing local school districts to accept such schools would set up avery dangerous system that clearly violates the concept of local control. I cannot support such a state government mandate, especially when the legislative majority has slashed local school funding by more than $1 billion in recent years.

Locally elected school board members across the state have spoken out against HR 1162, which comes as no surprise. It is certainly reasonable to ask why the state is creating a new funding stream for charter schools while reducing financial support for other schools, forcing reduced education calendars, elimination of programs and teacher furloughs.

Charters As Elixirs

Anne Charles Antiques, Used with Permission

Charter schools are seen as a cure-all to raise test scores of American students.  It kind of like a 19th century elixir, or remedy that will  serve as an antidote for the ills of traditional public schools.  Many policymakers are motivated by the delusion that choice and competition is the answer to solving problems facing our schools.

Public schools are the only agent that can create a sense of community among diverse communities from which students come.  Charter schools have not done this.  In fact, charter schools have further segregated children from each other, and we know that this is not a good idea.

Yet, it is quite obvious that policymakers have ignored the research that has been conducted by university-based researchers, rather than “partisan think-tanks.”  Instead they are enacting laws around the country that will enable for-profit charter management companies to swoop in and establish charter schools, almost at will.  These laws further destabilize public schools, and remove the locus of control of local schools, and put it into the hands of unelected bureaucrats (political appointees).

Some of the charter bills that have been passed will result in an increase in politics and influence peddling in the context of  multimillion dollar opportunities by establishing charter schools in various counties in each state.  Real estate investment firms will find a pot of gold in these states.  Firms will come in a purchase land and/or empty buildings (schools, factories) and then in turn lease them to for-profit charter school management companies, such as KIPP, Academica, or Charter Schools USA.  Boston worked out a deal in the interests of corporate investors.

The State of Charters at the State Level

For sometime I have been following and writing about charter schools, especially the legislation that has made it through state legislatures. For this post, I went over to EducationNews, a website that distills and reports on education policy, technology, online schools, and more.  From their Charter schools’ link, I selected articles that focused on legislative aspects of charters.

Give Me Charters, Or Give Me….

The first set of legislative reports shed  light on how quickly state legislatures are moving  to expand charter schools, making it easier for charter managment companies to come into a state and set up shop.  It also opens the door to huge investment opportunites for land, buildings, and leasing opportunities, all on the taxpayers’ dime.

These reports show how powerful the charter school lobby is, and how policymakers have put on blindfolds when thinking about what is best for the greater good in public education.  Here’s what’s happening.

  1. The Georgia Senate was able to persuade three democratic senators to support HR 1162, a bill that would change the state constitution and allow the state to create its own set of charter schools, without  local school district approval or advice.
  2. The South Carolina Senate has passed a bill, by a margin of 39-2, that will boost the growth of charter schools statewide.
  3. A hearing before the House Ways and Means Education Committee gave the public a chance to comment on a charter school bill that would allow the creation of such schools in Alabama.
  4. Legislators in Washington State are close to having enough votes to pass a charter school bill that the Governor opposes.
  5. Charter school proponents in Pennsylvania seek the freeing of charter schools from approval by their direct competitors with a conflict of interest.
  6. After Mississippi’s Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison’s proposed charter school bill passed, it was held on a motion to reconsider. Now, senators will vote again on to decide whether or not allow charter schools in the state.
  7. Idaho lawmakers advanced legislation that would lift the state’s cap on charter schools while also allowing more than one to open within the boundaries of traditional school districts each year.
  8. Louisiana’s Governor Jindal plans to authorize more types of groups that can approve new charter schools in the state will include nonprofits, community groups, and universities. The plan would likely cause charters to spring up rapidly across the state, not just in the urban areas where they are now concentrated, writes Sarah Carr at the Times-Picayune.
  9. Charter schools account for 41% of the total Washington D.C. public enrollment. An audit showed that enrollment in the D.C decreased slightly, but enrollment in charter schools increased by 8%.
  10. Amid budget constraints and continued pressure to reform public education, Oregon Trail School District in Oregon has launched their own charter school, taking advantage of federal charter school grants worth up to half a million dollars to create a rare hybrid: the district-initiated charter school.  These federal grants can be up to $500,000.
  11. Last week the Michigan House approved legislation that would see a removal of the cap on the number of charter schools in the state. The bill was designed to open the door to a wave of new charters in the next year.
  12. More than two dozen schools in Chicago’s most prominent and largest charter networks, including the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), Chicago International Charter Schools, University of Chicago and LEARN, scored well short of district averages recently on key standardized tests, write Joel Hood and Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah at the Chicago Tribune.  But this hasn’t stopped Chicago Public Schools from green lighting proposals for another twelve charters to sprout up across the district, writes Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah at the Chicago Tribune.
  13. After a six and a half hour debate and discussion in front of an audience, the Austin school board has voted 6-3 in bringing in IDEA Public Schools, a South Texas charter school operator, to take over the running of two schools in East Austin, writes Melissa Taboada at the Statesman.  The move can’t be said to be popular with the community – at least, the members of the community gathered to watch the debate take place.
  14. Tennessee state commission of education, Kevin Huffman, wants to clamp down on districts that deny charter school applications, claiming that funding per-pupil doen’t belong to the school system, and that parents should have more say in how the funding is use—it can go with the child.
  15. The Imagine Academy of Academic Success school has been entangled in a complex series of real estate deals since it opened. By the time students were on their first summer break, their brown brick building at 1409 East Linton Avenue in St. Louis had been sold three times, the final price nearly 10 times higher than the first. In the process, the company running the school cashed in, writes Elisa Crouch at the St. Louis Post-Distpatch.  Imagine Schools Inc. is the nation’s largest charter school operator and it runs six charter schools in St. Louis. Together, their performance on state standardized exams is worse than any school district in Missouri.
  16. Under a bill passed Wednesday by Republicans on the Legislature’s budget committee, an independent charter school program is to expand to medium and large school districts around Wisconsin, write Jason Stein and Erin Richards at the Milwaukee/Wisconsin Journal Sentinel.
  17. In a historic agreement, Boston public schools have agreed to cooperate better with the independent charter schoolsin the city in order to improve the quality of education available to Boston kids, the Boston Globe reports. Although the agreement, which included information-sharing programs, passed with a 5-2 vote, not all of the responses were purely positive. A controversy arose over a clause in the new agreement that would make it easier for charter schools to lease abandoned public school buildings from the district. The charter school opponents argue that this will allow charters to spread more easily in a city that’s notorious for its tight real-estate market.  Note: Boston is one of several districts to receive funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to work on a collaboration scheme between the city’s public schools and charter schools.


However, there are also some districts and states that have their blindfolds off, and clearly understand how integral public schools are to the fabric of the American democracy.  If we allow charter schools of choice to dominate schooling, we all lose.

Fortunately, there are courageous policymakers that are standing up, and saying NO!  Here are few stories that represent “bellwether” districts and states.

  1. Through the fall, school boards across Florida have faced a dilemma: approve every charter school application or face a battle with the state on appeal. Seminole County is one of the districts that have “embraced the fight”, filing a suit against the state Board of Education and rejecting applicants.  Don’t get too excited here. Charter schools thrive in Florida.
  2. A bill sponsored by California Assemblyman Tony Mendoza that makes it easier for school districts to block charter schools has passed through the Assembly.  The legislation, which was backed by the California Teachers Association (CTA), won the vote at the Assembly by 45-28.
  3. Three years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District — the nation’s second largest district — invited charter organizations to restructure low-performing schools. Now LAUSD is set to eliminate external organizations from being able to take over schools for the next three years, essentially dismantling the Public School Choice program, writes Christina Hoag at the Associated Press.
  4. After  in the state that permits nonpublic schools to be converted into charter schools, his administration has met opposition and support from every corner of the state.
  5. A budget bill passed by the New York Assembly in Albany will cut funding for charter schools to 2009-10 levels if they’re located in a district where at least 10% of students are charter school enrollees.
  6. The Alabama Education Association (AEA) has announced that in the next legislative session it will push for more funding for the classroom and a fight against attempts to bring charter schools to the state.
  7. Hawaii’s Charter School Review Panel has “misinterpreted state law and minimized its role in the system’s accountability structure”, says an audit of the state’s charter school system, writes Katherine Poythress at Honolulu Civil Beat.  The main points highlighted in the damning audit are that Hawaii’s Charter School Review Panel fails to hold charter schools accountable for student performance while allowing the schools to avoid complying with state law and principles of public accountability.

Do you think that charter schools, and the loud voice of “choice” is the new education potient or elixir?  Why is it that university research is ignored by so many policymakers?

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.