Apr 16, 2022
If there's one thing people love to argue about, it's charter schools.
Go to any school board meeting, PTA forum or editorial page, and you're bound to see folks from all different walks of life getting red in the face over these institutions.
But what are they anyway? And why do they generate so much passionate disagreement?
To answer these questions and many more, I'm going to examine five of the most pernicious myths about charter schools, debunk the fallacies and come to the simple truths.
1. Charter Schools are Public Schools
That's what charter school supporters say, anyway. But it's only partially true.
In short, charter schools are schools that were opened by special arrangement (or charter) with a state or authentic public school district that allows them to exist without having to abide by all the rules and regulations that govern all the other schools. Thus, the charter school can go without an elected board, it can pocket public money as private profit, hire uncertified teachers, refuse to admit special education students, etc. The degree of latitude depends on the special arrangement.
Is that a public school? In one way it most certainly is. All charter schools are funded by public tax dollars. Everything else is up for grabs.
They don't even have to accept all the students in their coverage area like authentic public schools do. You still have to support them with your taxes though.
Is that a public school?
QUICK ANSWER: NO.
2. Charter Schools Save Money
This is another claim by the charter school industry that has been in contention for their entire 30 year existence.
Charter schools were invented in 1991 and only exist in 43 states and the District of Columbia. They enroll about 6% of the students in the country - roughly three million children.
However, the idea that they could save money is pretty absurd. They duplicate services that already exist at neighborhood public schools. When you pay for two providers to do the same thing, that doesn't lower the cost.
It drains money from the existing public schools and often forces school directors to raise taxes so they can continue to provide the same services as before.
However, not only do charter schools increase costs, they often waste the extra money taxpayers are forced to provide.
Consider that more than a quarter of charter schools close within 5 years of opening. By year 15, roughly 50% of charter schools close. That's not a stable model of public education.
Moreover, 1,779 charter schools (37 percent that receive federal grants) never opened in the first place or were quickly shut down. Since 1994, the federal government has spent $4 billion on these types of schools. Think of how much money has been wasted that could have been put to better use in our much more dependable authentic public schools!
To be fair, some charter defenders will argue that since they are free from the same regulations as public schools, they can cut costs WITHIN their institutions and provide the same services for less. However, they never return that savings to the taxpayers. They simply cut services for their students and then pocket the savings. Lowering quality may be a way to cut costs, but it's not exactly an innovation - and certainly not something to be envied.
This may be cost effective to the bureaucrats and profiteers running charter schools, but it is not a savings to you and me - to speak nothing of how it hurts the students hoping to receive a quality education.
So do charter schools save money?
QUICK ANSWER: NO!
3. Students do Better Academically in Charter Schools
This is what it says on all those charter school advertisements you see popping up everywhere. But is it true?
The problem with answering that is one of apples and oranges. How do you fairly compare charter and public school students when each group is so different?
Charter schools can legally cherry pick their students. They serve far fewer students with disabilities and English Language Learners. If a student is hard to teach, they "convince" them to go somewhere else.
Meanwhile, authentic public schools can't do that. They take all comers.
As a result, charter schools can APPEAR to do better for their students but that appearance is due to privileged rules not better teaching or academic programs.
However, even with such advantages, charter schools have failed to show consistent results over authentic public schools on comparative studies.
According to a 2010 Mathematica Policy Research study funded by the federal government, middle-school students who were selected by lottery to attend charter schools performed no better than their peers who lost out in the lottery and attended nearby public schools. This was the most rigorous and most expensive study of charter school performance commissioned by the US Department of Education, and it found no overall positive benefit for charter schools.
And there have been many others. A 2016 study found that Texas charter schools had no overall positive impact on test scores and, in fact, had a negative impact on students' earnings later in life.
Even a 2020 study by the charter-friendly Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) found that charter schools are not exceeding public schools in most areas of the country. In addition, the study found vast variations in the quality of charter schools - some being better and many being much worse than the norm.
So, taken as a whole, do charter schools outperform authentic public schools?
QUICK ANSWER: NO!
4. Charter Schools are About Innovation
This was, in fact, one of the selling points of the charter school concept when it was first proposed. Being freed of the regulations that authentic public schools have to abide by would allow charter schools to be laboratories for innovation.
However, after 31 years, practices at charter schools can be seen as somewhat different than at authentic public schools, but are they innovative?
According to a 2018 report by IBM Center Visiting Fellow for Evidence-Based Practices, the practices connected with most positive academic outcomes at charter schools are:
1) Longer school days or academic years
2) Zero tolerance and other strict discipline policies associated with rewards and sanctions
3) Centering the curriculum on improving test scores and test prep.
These are pretty much the opposite of what developmental psychologists, education experts and civil rights activists want for children.
Forcing adolescents to spend more time in the classroom is the exact opposite of what other high achieving countries (like those in Scandinavia) do. Treating children like prisoners with harsh punishments for not conforming to strict rules is not considered best for developing young minds. And narrowing the curriculum to drill and kill reading and math test prep may improve scores but it certainly doesn't create well-rounded adults with strong critical thinking skills.
Moreover, those few charter schools that do engage in creative practices such as organizing the curriculum around a theme like creative arts or racial justice issues aren't doing anything that isn't already being done at authentic public schools - specifically magnet and lab schools.
The creativity and innovation you find at most charter schools is in the accounting department - finding new ways to reduce the services students would find at the neighborhood public school and redefining the savings as profit. That and circumventing conflict of interest regulations to allow the corporation that manages the charter school to buy properties from itself at a hefty mark up.
Is any of this innovation?
QUICK ANSWER: NO!
5. Charter Schools Improve Civil Rights
This is perhaps the most often cited benefit of charter schools. In fact, the impression has been that charters are the choice of people of color and serve them better than their neighborhood public school.
However, the facts show a somewhat different reality.
Yes, charter schools do serve a disproportionately high percentage of children of color. According to 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 26% of all charter school students are black (832,000) compared with 33% of Hispanics (1,056,000) and 32% of whites (1,024,000).
However, approximately 57% of charter schools are located in cities compared to only 25% of authentic public schools.
So black people aren't selecting charter schools more often as much as charter schools are deciding to locate in areas where more black people live and are often marketing their services directly to black and brown populations.
Are these schools doing a better job of meeting the needs of these children? A 2016 report from UCLA casts doubt on this idea.
Charter schools are notorious for suspending their black students at much higher rates than their white students. While suspensions for students of color are high at public schools as well, they are much more extreme at charter schools.
More than 500 charter schools suspended Black students 10 percent more often than white students. Moreover, the same figure holds for students with disabilities at 1,093 charter schools. In fact, 374 charter schools suspended 25% of their entire student bodies at least once.
Charter schools are also notorious for increasing racial segregation in the neighborhoods where they locate. Nearly half of all Black secondary charter school students attended a charter schools that was hyper-segregated (80% Black) and where the aggregate Black suspension rate was 25%.
However, this increased segregation isn't just something that affects Black charter school students. It affects white charter school students, as well.
A 2018 report by The Hechinger Report found that 10 percent of charter schools enrolled a disproportionately high number of White students as compared to the racial demographics of the district at large. Writer Kimberly Quick calls these "White-Flight Charters".
In the first case, the charter schools end up with a disproportionate percentage of Black students and the white students are left in the public schools. In the later case, the Black students are left in the authentic public schools and the white kids flee to the charter schools.
Both cases are not good for civil rights. They allow students of color to be targeted for disinvestment and reductive curriculum while further privileging the white students.
Don't Black students deserve the right to an education where corporations can't teach them on the cheap? Don't they deserve educations free from developmentally inappropriate long days, harsh discipline policies and narrowed curriculum? Don't their parents deserve the right to participate in the running of their schools through elected school boards?
The idea that it is somehow in the best interest of children of color to be provided with schools containing fewer safety precautions is kind of insulting.
Far from improving civil rights, charter schools too often violate them.
This is why the NAACP has repeatedly called for a moratorium on new charter schools. Members of the organization's educational task force released a statement saying:
"With the expansion of charter schools and their concentration in low-income communities, concerns have been raised within the African American community about the quality, accessibility and accountability of some charters, as well as their broader effects on the funding and management of school districts that serve most students of color."
Black Lives Matter organizers also called for a charter school moratorium. Charters, they wrote, represent a shift of public funds and control to private entities. Along with "an end to the privatization of education," the Movement for Black Lives organizers are demanding increased investments in traditional community schools and the health and social services they provide.
Moreover, the Journey for Justice Alliance - a coalition of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in over 30 cities - has gone even further calling for an end to all school privatization.
The organization posted on it's Website:
"The evidence is clear and aligns with the lived experience of parents, students and community residents in America's cities: school privatization has failed in improving the education outcomes for young people. There is no such thing as "school choice" in Black and Brown communities in this country. We want the choice of a world class neighborhood school within safe walking distance of our homes. We want an end to school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansion."
So do charters improve civil rights?
QUICK ANSWER: NO!
There are a lot of myths spread about charter schools - many of them being propagated by the charter school industry, itself.
Most of these are not facts; they are marketing.
While there are some charter schools that do a decent job educating children, the charter school concept is deeply flawed.
Authentic public schools are far from perfect, but taken as a whole they are much more effective, reliable, economical, transparent and democratic than the alternatives.
We should take steps to end the charter school model and transition those schools that are working back to the authentic public school system that has served our students well for more than a century.
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