What the Ed Reformers Don’t Want You to Know About Charter Schools

By Sally Absher

Last week The Focus reported on the Emerald Academy Charter application. At present there are 101 active public charter schools in Tennessee (k-12.state.tn.us/SDE). Many people think Charter Schools are the magic bullet that will transform our underperforming schools, particularly in urban districts, into miracles of achievement and success.

But Diane Ravitch, historian of education and Research Professor of Education at New York University, thinks otherwise. Writing in the LA Times last October, she calls Charter Schools a “colossal mistake,” explaining, “Charters will not end the poverty at the root of low academic performance or transform our nation’s schools into a high-performing system. The world’s top-performing systems – Finland and Korea, for example – do not have charter schools. They have strong public school programs with well-prepared, experienced teachers and administrators.”

Ravitch, who served as Assistant Secretary of Education under then Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander from 1991 to 1993, adds, “The original purpose of charters, when they first opened in 1990 (and when I was a charter proponent), was to collaborate with public schools, not to compete with them or undermine them. They were supposed to recruit the weakest students, the dropouts, and identify methods to help public schools do a better job with those who had lost interest in schooling. This should be their goal now as well.”

Charters are the darlings of the education reform movement. They appeal to the All-American idea of “choice,” with PR campaigns funded by the Walton Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and other pro-reform philanthropies. These organizations have given millions to the Chamber of Commerce, the PTA, and politicians.

The education reformers are capitalizing on a narrative based on “failing schools” and “bad teachers” and the idea that school choice, especially Charter Schools, will ensure that a child is prepared for “college and career.” As if competition is all that is needed to improve student learning.

There has also been a surge of hedge fund managers and wealthy investors scrambling to cash in on the latest “ dot.com.”  After all, Boston’s Parthenon Group, who recently charged Knox County Schools $1.2M for a “Resource Reallocation Study” also has a 16 page presentation entitled “Investing in Education: Where are the opportunities and how can you capture them?” (2009). Page 2 asks, “Where can investors play?”

With so much riding on the success of Charters, it is imperative that they be able to show they are successful.  But there are several reasons why Charter Schools are not the panacea so many claim that they are.

 

Unimpressive academic results

Even critics of Charters admit that high performing charter schools with impressive improvements in student proficiency do exist. But the 2013 National Charter School Study conducted by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) found that in reading, 56% of students in Charters nationally show no significant difference; 25% do significantly better; and 19% do significantly worse than their counterparts in public school.

The CREDO study also examined math proficiency, finding that 40% of students in Charters show no significant difference; 29% do significantly better, while 31% do significantly worse than their counterparts in public school. In summary, 71 to 75% of Charters perform the same of worse than public schools. One has to question the efficacy of the Charter School based on these findings.

 

Governance by private boards

Public Schools are run by publicly elected school boards. They answer to the parents and community members of the school district. Charter Schools are governed by privately appointed boards. The private board directs all aspects of the Charter School, from hiring of teachers, to selection of curriculum, to budget, to school day schedule. The lack of local public oversight has resulted in recently reported instances of fraud and mismanagement of public money in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and elsewhere.

Reducing funding to existing public schools. Many districts are struggling to remain financially viable in times of shrinking state aid. The growing charter school movement further reduces funds available to the public school system. Charter schools drain money from public schools, and the costs cannot be reduced simply because some students have left.

Our neighbors in Metro Nashville have been hit with an additional $9M in costs due to recently opened charter schools, and have not seen their fixed costs reduced one penny.  Districts would be better served by partnering with the non-profit organization wishing to open a Charter School to instead work within the existing public school infrastructure.

 

Discipline Policies

 

Charter Schools have notoriously high suspension and attrition rates. While many of the students served by Charters need structure and discipline in their lives, the classroom management regime known as SLANT (Sit up, Lean forward, Ask questions, Nod at the teacher, Track the teacher) uses compliance as the driving motivation.  These policies would not be tolerated in public schools in more affluent areas.

Charters are more like private schools in that they can suspend or expel students for behavior that would not result in suspension or expulsion in a public school. It is all too easy for children, especially 5, 6, or 7 year olds, to act like children and incur minor infractions of military-like discipline codes.

 

Admissions

As public schools, Charters are required by law to take on any and all students who apply. Charters often accomplish this by a lottery system. But there are subtle ways that Charters can mold their student population to make it appear that they are doing better than public schools. Some of these might include:

Marketing emphasizing “college preparatory” and referring to students as “scholars;” marketing brochures written only in English to discourage ELL families from applying; requiring parent participation and volunteer activities; harsh discipline policies that result in suspension or expulsion; or offering fewer special education services to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Indeed, the 2013 Tennessee Charter Schools Annual Report shows a distinctly lower percentage of students who are characterized as special education or English language learners enrolled in Charter Schools in each of the three areas of the state that had Charters in 2012-13 (Metro Nashville, Memphis, and Hamilton Co).  This report also shows that Charters are even more segregated than the overall districts they serve.

So who are the kids who have been “left behind” by the Charter School? They tend to be the very children Charters were originally designed to help – the most at risk, the discipline problems, the ELLs, the Special Needs children. Their only “choice” is to remain (or return to) the Public Schools, which now have less money, fewer resources, and less hope than before.

Diane Ravitch summarized it well, saying, “The campaign to “reform” schools by turning public money over to private corporations is a great distraction from our system’s real problems: Academic performance is low where poverty and racial segregation are high.”

More and more people are digging beneath the slick PR and finding the hype of Charters is not supported by fact.  The Florida League of Women Voters released a revealing study of Charters across the state in May. The study shows that Charter Schools do not perform better than public schools; that Charters are more segregated than public schools; that many Charters funnel money to religious organizations; that a significant number of Charters operate for profit; and that the Charter industry has captured control of key seats in the legislature.

The Tennessee League of Women Voters would likely come to the same conclusions.

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