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
 
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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.

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