School Choice Part 2: Charter Schools

July 13, 2019 —

For nearly three decades, charter schools have been at the center of the national debate on public education as the fastest growing form of school choice. Today, forty-four states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws, with Kentucky being the most recent to join the list. There are nearly 7,000 charter schools in the U.S. serving over three million students.

The publicly-funded, privately-run schools have long attracted supporters and opponents on both sides of the aisle. As the schools have proliferated, the debate has become more polarized across party lines. A review of Democrat and Republican party platforms over the years shows Democrats adding more conditions to their support of charter schools as a form of school choice. Public opinion polls by Education Week also show that Republicans have traditionally been more supportive of charter schools than Democrats.

Even so, opinions have varied over the years among members of both parties. Support for charters began rising steadily in the 1990s, but fell significantly in 2017, with double-digit decreases at both ends of the political spectrum.

Then, between 2017 and 2018, support for charter schools ticked up again among both Democrats and Republicans, with 36 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republicans supporting charter schools.

With ongoing changes in public sentiment and heightened public scrutiny of underperforming charter schools, it’s time for a closer look at the two sides of the charter school debate.

We need more charter schools with more public funding

In 1991, Minnesota became the first state in the country to allow charter schools. The first school was founded by former public school teachers with a mission of serving students from low-income families who had dropped out of other schools.

Charter school advocates today look back to their movement’s original vision: a group of educators could organize to operate a school under a special contract, called a charter, with the local school board or state. The school would be funded with state, local, and federal tax dollars, tuition-free, and open to any student who wanted to attend.

Importantly, the school would be exempt from certain state and local laws and regulations, giving teachers more flexibility and freedom to innovate. Since charter schools could be smaller than traditional public schools, they could be tailored to students with specific needs, experiment with specialized instructional models, or emphasize particular subject areas like science or art. If any of their experiments proved especially successful, traditional public schools would be free to adopt them.

In theory, this autonomy comes with greater accountability. Not only is a charter school still held to the same standards for statewide testing, but in order to renew the charter and keep its doors open, the school has to prove that students meet the educational outcomes outlined in their contract.

In fact, many charter schools boast exceptionally strong outcomes compared to neighboring schools. Success Academy, which has locations (and critics) throughout New York City, reported in 2017 that 95 percent of their students were proficient in math and 84 percent in English Language Arts. Citywide, those numbers were 36 and 38 percent.

For parents interested in finding the best educational opportunities for their children, the last point is the most important. Faced with the choice between sending their children to an underperforming traditional public school and a high performing charter at no extra cost, many will choose the charter school — regardless of their party affiliation.

We need fewer charter schools receiving less public funding

Critics of charter schools argue first and foremost that they harm traditional public schools by drawing away students and diverting much-needed funding. When teachers in cash-strapped public schools in Oakland and Los Angeles went on strike earlier this year, they put a halt on new charter school funding on their list of demands. Charter schools have long been a target of teachers unions because they do not have to hire unionized teachers, and their teachers are not subject to the same standards for certification and compensation as traditional public school teachers.

Charter schools’ independence also comes with risks. While the majority of charter school management organizations are non-profit organizations, some states allow for-profit entities to manage charter schools. The operation of for-profit networks has created concerns about conflicts of interest, spawned allegations of financial mismanagement, and raised concerns about the privatization of public education.

Their independence also makes them hard to evaluate, and with a wide variety of schools operating within a range of different state laws, many researchers point to difficulties validating results or comparing outcomes between schools. Furthermore, even in states that require charter schools to maintain open enrollment, critics charge that they sometimes select students in ways that discriminate against those with special needs or disabilities.

Opponents also point out that charter schools may be doing more harm than good when it comes to racial equity. A majority of students who attend charter schools are black or Hispanic. Opponents say that by targeting these populations, charter schools are reinforcing segregation in public schools.

An avalanche of research has attempted to shed light on the impacts and outcomes of charter schools, but the results vary widely depending on the specific school or network studied. These variations make it easy for advocates on both sides of the debate to cherrypick facts or statistics to back up their views, so it’s important to have context when reading about charter schools. Below are a few resources to learn more about the debate:

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This article originally appeared in the July 13, 2019 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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