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Why I am NOT opposed to Charters but still don't think they are the Answer

A week ago I gave most of my blog over to a colleague who works in the field of education philanthropy, in order to share his views on charter schools.

The gist of his message was this:
When high-performing charter schools are allowed to 
get enough market share to truly challenge the status quo, they are 
forcing the public schools to compete. He suggested that several obstacles to the expansion of charter schools be removed - that they be given the same per pupil funds as public schools, and be given access to public school buildings.

Here are my thoughts.

First of all, I am all in favor of giving educators room to experiment with the way schools are organized and focused. I attended Berkeley High School back in the mid-1970s, in the waning years of the alternative schools movement, and I appreciated leaders like Herb Kohl who created energetic schools with classes that spoke to me as a student. I do not believe all schools should look the same, nor should student performance always look the same.

So I am at a disadvantage when it comes to using the results of the major studies that have been done on charter schools, such as the CREDO study from Stanford, or the study authored by the conservative Hoover Institute's Carolyn Hoxby. The CREDO study found that quality was highly variable among charter schools, and that on the whole, they did not perform significantly better than public schools. Hoxby, on the other hand, has found that students at charter schools had better performance. Both sets of studies use standardized test scores as the indicator of quality, which I find somewhat problematic.

The sad truth is that since No Child Left Behind has defined student achievement narrowly as math and reading test scores, this is the primary data available to compare schools. I am not satisfied with this, but we do not have any other basis on which to make this comparison.

The most important claim of charter school advocates is that these schools can beat the public schools when it comes to closing the achievement gap.

But are the students at charter schools the same population as those at regular public schools? Or are they "better" somehow, in a way that makes them easier to teach?

My belief is that there are significant differences between the population at many charter schools, and those at the regular public schools against which they compete.
If this is the case, then we don't have a level playing field, and the competition cannot be fairly judged. In the case of the Harlem Success Academy cited by my colleague, students are chosen by a lottery, but parents must apply, and sign a pledge to take an active role in their child's education. Furthermore, if the child is tardy, the parent must show up with the child for Saturday school. These are likely to be effective devices to promote good behavior, but as commenter jlucido pointed out last week, they are going to exclude many of the students that a public school can NOT exclude. We cannot kick out a student because they do not have a parent willing to take this kind of responsibility, and we have many students living in foster homes, group homes, or with relatives rather than stable households. So the mere existence of a lottery is insufficient to make these student populations comparable.

I am not alone in saying that these populations are not the same.

In January of this year an important study was published by UCLA's Civil Rights Project entitled "Choice without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards." These researchers found that:

This analysis of recent data finds that charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation. While there are examples of charter schools with vibrant diversity, this report shows these schools to be the exception. Further, extensive studies exploring charter school benefits reveal no net academic gains for students as indicated by test scores.

They also reported that:

Charter schools continue to be associated with increased levels of racial isolation for their students, either in terms of minority segregated schools or white segregated learning environments. Studies suggest that sorting students by socioeconomic status is linked to charters, as well as a propensity for charter schools to serve lower numbers of ELLs and students with disabilities.

This corresponds with data that emerged last fall from Boston, which revealed that charter schools there had far fewer English Language Learners, Special education and poor students than the public schools.

As my colleague, Nancy Flanagan points out, charter schools have some other advantages as well. A largely younger cadre of teachers who cost less and can be pressed into working long hours at little expense. And some, like the Harlem Success Academy, have boards of directors with wealthy individuals and corporate sponsors capable of raising millions of dollars.

Arne Duncan and Barack Obama have made the expansion of charter schools one of the four pillars of Race to the Top, and are requiring states to eliminate regulations that hamper the expansion of charters as a condition of qualifying for new funding. This just does not make sense. As Thomas Toch has convincingly argued, there are big obstacles to scaling up, that go far beyond the issues of funding and the sharing of public school buildings mentioned by my colleague. Toch wrote:


Charter schools are an important addition to the public education landscape and the best CMOs (Charter Management Organizations) have produced great results. ... But the CMO movement has created only a few hundred schools in a decade, and even with more funding it would be difficult for CMOs to expand much faster without compromising the quality of their schools.

I have never been opposed to charter schools on principle. I think there should be avenues for teachers and parents in a community to initiate a new school with their own vision for their students.

We should be open to fresh ideas, and the public schools definitely need them. There are some charter schools doing great things - giving teachers more time to plan and collaborate, choosing school-wide themes for learning, or implementing powerful strategies like Project-Based Learning.

But I have trouble understanding why we should decide that the desirable transformations carried out by the best charters are so impossible in the regular public schools, where 97% of our students are still being educated.
There are obstacles here, but they can be overcome, and I believe the institution of public education is worth fighting for.

The greatest advantage many charter proponents seem to focus on is the absence of unions to muck things up and prevent the firing of crummy teachers. I think there are much better ways to solve this problem - but that is a subject for another day.

What do you think? Are the comparisons of charter schools to public schools fair? Does it make sense to expand charter schools to create more competition?

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