The charter school movement in the United States (US) began in 1992 as a small effort in California to provide students an alternative to some schools that faced overwhelming odds of academic success. In 2013, the charter school movement is a well-funded private interest sector, sold to the American public as the cure to all that supposedly plagues public schools. The Center for Education Reform (2009) reported that there were approximately 5,000 charters schools serving almost 1.7 million of the approximately 49 million public school students in the US.
Charter schools are legally defined as public schools that are free from some of the financial and regulatory oversight placed on traditional public schools. In some respects, they operate outside of the traditional public school system, yet they are marketed as public schools and funded with public tax dollars. Proponents of charter schools claim that the schools help to create education competition and an education market so that parents can make choices about where their children receive education. Proponents also claim that charter school personnel produce better learning gains on standardized achievement tests. Some schools are managed and operated by for-profit corporations and some are operated by non-profit entities.
It all sounds like a great idea: Liberate school personnel from over-regulation to spur innovation and serve student needs; Give parents and students a choice and help those who struggle. But things are not what they seem. What does the research suggest in terms of academic achievement of charter school students? What is that actual effect of choice on the demographic make-up of charter schools and the schools whose students leave to attend charters? Finally, what happens to the existing democratic system of free public schools when charter schools become a large provider in the education sector?
A Vision for Academic Excellence:
What Does the Research Suggest?
Supporters of charter schools often cite improved academic performance as a major advantage over traditional public schools. For example, the charter school special interest group Center for Education Reform (2009) published a piece of pseudo-research titled The Accountability Report: Charter Schools. It is full of methodologically flawed results and conclusions that attempt to make charter schools seem like the magic pill for all that ails student achievement.
Many charter school special interest groups report and publish pseudo-research. But what does the independent research suggest about the academic gains created by charter school personnel? Reports released since 2005 based on results from national and regional studies show that charter schools offer no statistically significant advantages as a group, related to student achievement when controlling for the socio-economic backgrounds of the students attending the charter schools and their academic achievement prior to entering the charter school. For example, a 2009 report from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) reviewed the academic performance of charter school students in 16 states. The report analyzed results from 2,403 charter schools and was the largest report to date regarding charter school student achievement. The main findings related to student achievement were:
- 37% of charter schools had achievement that was statistically significantly lower achievement than if their students attended the local traditional public school.
- 17 percent of charter schools had achievement that was statistically significantly higher than if their students attended the local traditional public school.
- 46 percent of charter schools had achievement that was not statistically significantly different from their local traditional public school.
- The learning gains for blacks and Hispanics are statistically significantly lower than their similar peers in the traditional public schools.
The results from the independent investigation of charter school academic results suggested that “Charter school students on average see a decrease in their academic growth in reading of .01 standard deviations compared to their traditional school peers. In math, their learning lags by .03 standard deviations on average. While the magnitude of these effects is small, they are both statistically significant” (p. 12).
As a group, charter schools have more segregated student populations than traditional public schools. Charter schools enroll much lower percentages of students with special education needs, lower percentage of students who do not speak English, and lower percentages of students from poverty. For example, charter schools in New Jersey and New York City generally enroll a much lower percentage of students with special needs, excluding speech services. Students with special needs make up about 6% of the charter school populations in New Jersey and New York City, whereas about 16% of the traditional public school children require special education services. Less than five percent of the charter school students are English language learners (Baker, 2009; 2010).
Students are also segregated by the color of their skin. Although white students are approximately 56% of traditional public school enrollments, only about 39% of charter school students are white. Only about 20% of those white students attend schools that have majority non-white populations. Black students are the most highly segregated. Approximately 70% of black students in charter schools are enrolled in schools that are 90%-100% black (Frankenberg, 2011; Frankenberg & Lee, 2003).
Mechanisms of Segregation
Although charter schools are marketed as public schools, some charter schools practice selective admissions. In the US, public schools must enroll any student that lives within the boundaries of the school. That is not true for charter schools. Charter schools can hold “lotteries” to admit interested students. The lottery itself is not the issue. The issue is what happens after lottery. I have had private discussions with the heads of multiple charter schools about their admissions practices in an attempt to determine why charter school populations differ so much from their local public schools in terms of the percentage of students with special needs and ELL’s. The charter heads represented schools that spanned the K-12 spectrum.
The scenario generally goes something like this: (1) All students who win the lottery must fill out a detailed student intake form. The form, usually printed in English (Welner, 2013) requires parents to disclose any special needs the child might have and in some cases their free/reduced lunch status; (2) Parents and students must submit to an “intake interview” with the leadership of the charter school to be oriented to the “expectations” of the school; (3) In some schools, students must produce a writing sample; (4) Students who have special education needs, behavior issues, are English language learners, or those children who possess other factors that might influence academic achievement negatively are gently counseled about the possible mismatch between their needs and the school’s mission.
In some cases parents are told that their student might not be a good match for the school or that the school does not offer the level of services the child might need. Of course not all charter schools participate in selective admissions counseling but many employ a range of methods to recruit their preferred students (Welner, 2013). Some other reasons why charter schools generally have more favorable student demographics are that the poorest parents have less means (time, money, information, support) to make informed choices or to get their students to the new school. New schools can mean new daily schedules for families, which in turn means new childcare needs to accommodate the new school schedule and the work schedule of the parents. Quality childcare in America’s poor cities is a scarce commodity.
Charter proponents trumpet choice as the hallmark of a democratic public education system. They put a “parents right to choose” at the forefront of their argument for expanding the charter market and put the parent in the role of consumer. On its face, it sounds very logical. Anything less than free choice would be, of course, un-American; unless of course that choice results in an un-American public school stratification.
The argument made by proponents usually goes something like this: Education is the civil rights issue of our lifetime. Students should not be made to attend schools that are persistently unsafe and that do not deliver a quality education. Parents should have the right to choose a school that is right for their child. Sounds very democratic and consumer-chic, yes?
Consider this: By allowing people to choose (and not everyone chooses to leave or has access to the information needed to make a good choice), there is potential, in a weakly regulated system, for certain parents to choose certain schools based on factors that create greater segregation along academic, racial, ethnic, special education, or socio-economic lines, or combinations of factors, than existed in the traditional public school (Tienken and Orlich, 2013). That is exactly what is happening. Charter schools are balkanizing the population and reducing resources for students who choose to stay in the traditional public school because every student that moves to a charter school takes his or her funding to the charter school. Therefore, the traditional public school is drained of resources needed to educate the students whose parents choose for them to stay.
We think it is important to remember that at various times in the history of the United States, people have “chosen” to keep slaves, not allowed women to vote, created separate and unequal facilities for non-white citizens, instituted voting laws to make it difficult for certain citizens to vote, restricted who can get married, and banned bilingual education, to name a few things. All in the name of liberty and a person’s right to choose.
Choice for choice’s sake is irresponsible, reckless, and can be undemocratic. Passing laws and policies that have now been shown to weaken the democratic fabric of the United States by facilitating people’s choice to segregate is immoral, and those who knowingly create and support such laws and policies are engaging in social and moral malpractice (Tienken and Orlich, 2013). Students in public schools attend more racially, economically, and academically diverse schools, on average, than their peers in charter schools. However, if the large-scale policy goal is to facilitate the balkanization of students, and thus eventually society, by race, ethnicity, achievement, special education needs, English language learner status, and economics, all based on the “free choice” of parents supported by law, then charter schools are a good policy.
If your goal is a unitary, democratic system, as originally envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, in which people of all races, ethnicities, economic, language, special needs, and cognitive backgrounds, learn, collaborate, deliberate, together, side-by-side, in the rich pool of diversity, then charter schools are not a good idea. What’s healthier in the long run for a democracy? I argue for the second, the more diverse (in every sense of the word) option.
Constructed to Destroy
The current charter school movement is built upon a mix of Postmodern Consumerism and Neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism is a philosophy born out of an economic ideology that free market competition and privatization of state social services is a more efficient and effective way to run a society (Steger & Roy, 2010). Neo-liberal policy-makers believe that the state should not be involved in providing social services. Proponents believe that the state’s role should be limited to the organization of outsourcing those services to private companies. Deregulation, tax decreases for the wealthiest citizens, opposition to unions, unrestrained capitalism, and fostering work insecurity to lower labor costs are some hallmarks of the philosophy (Bourdieu, 1999).
In education, neo-liberal policies include (a) allowing public tax dollars to be used to fund private school tuition through vouchers or tax credits to families who send their students to school outside of the public system, (b) the creation of semi-private schools, known as charter schools, run by private companies, private boards of interested parties, or education management organizations funded by public tax dollars, (c) cutting state funding to public schools in order to foster privatization, (d) encouraging the elimination of teachers’ unions in order to subvert the collective bargaining process, and (e) encouraging merit pay based on the results from one statewide standardized test.
Aggressive marketing and a zealous attempt to manufacture new capitalist economic markets are two hallmarks of postmodern consumerism. The felt needs and desires of the individual trump the social needs of the greater population. Personal choice rules and there is not a shortage of must-have products marketed to create those felt needs (Corrigan, 1998). Success is measured by consumption and the accumulation of material goods, at any cost. Consuming becomes the way people self-identify in postmodern consumerism (Jessup, 2001). Truth becomes marginalized within the growing space of the market. Product marketing replaces empirical fact in an effort to drive consumption and increase it.
The convergence of neo-liberalism and postmodern consumerism creates a fertile field for big business to become more financially involved in the charter school movement. It’s a perfect fit for speculation, market manipulation, and new market creation. Therefore it is no wonder there has been a surge in the amount of money “Big Business” has been investing in charter schools.
Not the Answer
Perhaps charter schools are not the answer to improving public education in the United States. Creating a multi-tiered, balkanized education system will not solve the problems we face as a society. It seems that charter schools do not achieve their stated goals of superior academic student achievement. They can’t overcome the negative factors that affect learning caused by having children born into and grow up in impoverished conditions similar to those found in developing countries.
Charter schools can’t overcome broken housing policy that favors the non-poor (Schwartz, 2010), broken health policy that allows indigent pregnant women to be denied consistent health care, and fiscal policies that keep low wage earners in low wage jobs with no way to pay their children’s way out of poverty. I believe that a unitary democratic, public school system, supported by a healthy social system, is the best way to raise student achievement and more important, a way to build a compassionate, participative democracy.
Baker, B. (2010). More fun with New Jersey charter schools. Schoolfinance101. Retrieved from: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2010/01/26/more-fun-with-new-jersey-charter-schools/
Baker, B. (2009). NJ Charters: Worthy of the hype? Education Law Center: Newark, NJ.
Bourdieu, P. (1999). The weight of the world: Social suffering in contemporary society. Oxford, UK: Polity.
Center for Education Reform. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.edreform.com/Fast_Facts/ Ed_Reform_FAQs/?Just_the_FAQs_Charter_Schools
Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). (2009). Multiple choice: Charter school performance in 16 states. Author. Retrieved from http://credo.stanford.edu/reports/MULTIPLE_CHOICE_CREDO.pdf
Corrigan, P. (1998). The Sociology of Consumption, London: Sage Publications.
Frankenberg, E. (2011). Educational charter schools: A civil rights mirage? Kappa Delta Pi Record, 47(3), 100-105.
Frankenberg, E. and Lee, C. (2003, September 5). Charter schools and race: A lost
opportunity for integrated education. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 11(32). Retrieved from http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v11n32/.
Jessup, M. (2001). Truth: The first casualty of postmodern consumerism. Christian Scholar’s Review, 30(3), 289-304.
Schwartz, H. (2010). Housing policy is school policy: Economic integrative housing promotes academic success in Montgomery County, Maryland. New York: The Century Foundation.
Tienken, C.H. & Orlich, D.C. (2013). The school reform landscape: Fraud, myth, and lies. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Welner, K.G. (2013). The dirty dozen. How charter schools influence student enrollment. Teachers College Record, # 17104.