P.L. Thomas: Charter Schools Not the Answer, Especially if We Fail to Identify the Question

Guest Post by P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010) and 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate? (Springer, 2009) co-authored with Renita Schmidt. He maintains a blog addressing the role of poverty in education.  His teaching and scholarship focus on literacy and the impact of poverty on education, as well as confronting the political dynamics influencing public education in the U.S. His work can be followed here

One pattern of failure in education reform is that political leadership and the public focus attention and resources on solutions while rarely asking what problems we are addressing or how those solutions address identified problems. The current and possibly increasing advocacy of charter schools is a perfect example of that flawed approach to improving our schools across the U.S.

Let’s start with two clarifications. First, the overwhelming problems contributing to school quality are pockets of poverty across the country and school policies and practices mirroring and increasing social inequities for children once they enter many schools.Children who live under the weight of poverty attend buildings in disrepair, sit in classrooms with inexperienced and un-/under-qualified teachers, and suffer through endless scripted instruction designed to raise their test scores. Citizens of a democracy share the responsibility for eradicating both the out-of-school and in-school failures often reflected in data associated with our public schools.Then, what is a charter school and should any state increase resources allocated to charter schools, and in effect, away from public schools?
Starting with Problems, not Solutions  Charter schools are public schools that function under agreements, charters, that allow those schools to function in some ways without the constraints placed on public schools.Here, we must acknowledge that if charter schools are a viable solution to the serious problems I have identified above, a much more direct approach would be simply to allow all public schools to function without the restraints we know to be impacting negatively their ability to produce strong educational outcomes.If innovation and autonomy are valuable for educational reform, then all public schools deserve those opportunities.Powerful evidence that committing to charter schools is inefficient rests in the research that shows charter schools, private schools, and public schools have essentially the same academic outcomes when the populations of students served are held constant.In his ongoing analysis of educational research, Matthew DiCarlo explains:

“[T]here is a fairly well-developed body of evidence showing that charter and regular public schools vary widely in their impacts on achievement growth. This research finds that, on the whole, there is usually not much of a difference between them, and when there are differences, they tend to be very modest. In other words, there is nothing about ‘charterness’ that leads to strong results.”

In other words, when schools succeed—which many public, private, and charter schools do—the success appears to have little to do with the type of school. The practices in any of these models can be replicated in any of the other models, but even then, scaling up or replicating what works in Public School A may not come to fruition in Charter School B.

The evidence, then, suggests that all states should avoid investing time and allocating tax dollars to charter schools, particularly when those commitments detract from addressing known problems in our public schools.

But there are additional red flags that should be considered about the charter school movement, cautions that are even more alarming:

  • While charter schools across the U.S. are serving high-poverty and minority populations, charter schools tend to under-serve English language learners and students with special needs—two of the most challenging populations facing public schools. If our experiments with charter schools include ignoring populations at the heart of public school challenges, then the experiments are a failure from the start.
  • The charter school movement is re-segregating public schools. This is the most disturbing fact of the charter school movement. Children of color and children living in poverty are disproportionately being isolated in charter schools that are without racial or socioeconomic diversity.
  • Since charter schools create some degree of open enrollment, they create transient populations of students, thus producing data that are less valuable for mining policies and practices to address the problems facing neighborhood public schools.
  • Charter schools have the power to manipulate the population of students served only because public schools must serve the students once they leave those charter schools. Public schools never have, and shouldn’t have, the power to reject students beyond expulsion.

Many states appear committed, then, to contradictory policies: Increasing charter schools and thus their autonomy while decreasing public school autonomy within an accountability system that prescribes curriculum and expands the testing regime.

Charter schools in theory represent a belief in innovation, experimentation, and school autonomy. If these qualities are valuable and if they can address the out-of-school and in-school causes of educational outcomes, then we simply need to allocate funding and policies to insure that our public schools are afforded the same, while also admitting that we have no evidence that a school type—pubic, charter, or private—insures the outcomes we seek.

Recommended Resources

Baker, B.D. & Ferris, R. (2011). Adding up the spending: Fiscal disparities and philanthropy among New York City charter schools. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/…

One contradiction of charter school advocacy is the claim that funding doesn’t matter or is excessive at the public school level, but that many charter schools benefit from private donations or funding in addition to accepting tax dollars for running those charter schools. This study raises cautions about the wide variety of funding found in New York city charter schools. The authors warn about making careless comparisons and assuming that any charter schools are scalable as reform templates for public education reform.

Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). (2009, June). Multiple choice: Charter school performance in 16 states. Stanford, CA: Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Retrieved from http://credo.stanford.edu/…

This comprehensive study of charter schools, though not without controversy, presents a solid picture of the range of quality found in any education format. Charter schools appear to have about 17% high achieving, 46% average, and 37% low achieving characteristics when compared to public schools. This data help place in context claims of “high flying” charter schools as all or even most charter schools, but the study does not address key issues such as the ideology and practices of those schools.

Frankenberg, E., Siegel-Hawley, G., & Wang, J. (2011) Choice without equity: Charter school segregation.Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 19(1). Retrieved from http://epaa.asu.edu/…

We often fail to recognize the negative consequences of choice, but the charter school movement is exposing those consequences. This study concludes that charter schools “currently isolate students by race and class” and that charter schools may tend to under-serve English language learners and the extreme low end of poverty.

Fuller, E. (2011, April 25). Characteristics of students enrolling in high-performing charter high schools. A “Fuller” Look at Education Issues [blog]. Retrieved from http://fullerlook.wordpress.com/…

The choice dynamic of charter schools necessarily creates a student population unlike the community-based traditional public schools. In order to understand if and how charter schools in fact provide some evidence for reforming public schools, the populations of charters schools must be fully examined and understood. Fuller begins to examine the characteristics of students in charter schools labelled “high-performing” and identifies many disparities including special education students served, achievement characteristics among high-poverty students in both charter and public schools, and at-risk students, concluding:”This suggests that HP charter high schools do not serve the same types of students as the regular neighborhood schools. Now, granted, the HP charter high schools do enroll a greater percentage of students participating in the free- and reduced-price lunch program and in the free lunch program, but these economically disadvantaged students are not the same as the economically disadvantaged students in the regular neighborhood schools!”

Garcia, D. (2011). Review of “Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector’s Best.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/….

Garcia debunks think tank advocacy for expanding rapidly charter schools. This review is important for remaining skeptical about charter schools and for continuing to be vigilant about distinguishing between advocacy dressed as research and credible conclusions drawn from scholarship and research.

Miron, G. (2011). Review of “Charter Schools: A Report on Rethinking the Federal Role in Education.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from http://nepc.colorado.edu/….

Miron presents a mixed view of a report from the Brown Center on Education Policy of the Brookings Institution. The Brown Center report represents a growing endorsement of a federal role in promoting the expansion of charter schools. Miron argues for a tempered position on expanding charter schools and for using this report as just one initial piece of evidence in forming policy.

Miron, G. & Urschel, J.L. (2010). Equal or fair? A study of revenues and expenditure in American charter schools. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from http://epicpolicy.org/…

Funding and how funding is distributed lie at the center of much of the charter school and public school reform debates. This study details the complexity of how charter schools are funding and how that compares to public school funding. Key in this study is a call for more research on charter funding along with greater and fuller disclosure of charter funding, since charter schools tend to receive less per-pupil funding that public school but additional private funding that is not disclosed. As well, public schools remain likely to offer services that charters do not provide, distorting further any comparisons of funding equity.

Miron, G., Urschel, J. L., Mathis, W, J., & Tornquist, E. (2010). Schools without Diversity: Education management organizations, charter schools and the demographic stratification of the American school system. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from http://epicpolicy.org/…

This study draws a disturbing pattern being uncovered about the charter school movement: “The analysis found that, as compared with the public school district in which the charter school resided, the charter schools were substantially more segregated by race, wealth, disabling condition, and language.”

Miron, G., Urschel, J. L., & Saxton, N. (2011, March). What makes KIPP work?: A study of student characteristics, attrition, and school finance. Teachers College, Columbia University. National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education. Retrieved from http://www.ncspe.org/…

Focusing on inputs instead of student outcomes, this study examines KIPP schools and finds that KIPP schools do enroll high-poverty student but under-serve special needs students and English language learners. The study also raises questions about student attrition and about the apparent inequity in funding that KIPP schools receive when all funding is examined, totaling about $6500 more per pupil than public schools in the area. Combined, this evidence challenges the KIPP model as scalable.

Ravtich, D. (2010, November 11). The myth of charter schools. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/…

Ravitch’s scholarly commentary is important because of her credibility as a scholar and historian along with her recent shift in positions concerning accountability/testing and school choice. This detailed discussion confronts the media-driven claims of “miracle” charter schools.

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About Jack Hassard

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