The Things They Don’t Tell You About Charter Schools

Of all the places to least expect a critique of choice and competition in education, the Wall Street Journal has to be it. Yet, this week it provided a damning assessment of the experience with charter schools in the United States.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools which operate outside the direct control of departments of education. They are seen as a source of competition to force traditional public schools to improve student achievement.

Increasing the number of charter schools is a key feature of the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program for school improvement in the US. They were a feature of Joel Klein’s so-called education reform program for New York City. Many charter schools are operated by for-profit companies and have become the plaything of hedge fund managers and wealthy philanthropists.

The Wall Street Journal article outlines ten myths about charter schools.

1. We’re no better than public schools
Charter schools in general aren’t producing better results than traditional public schools. A national study by the Centre for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford found that while 17% of charter schools produced better results than neighbourhood public schools, 37% were significantly worse, and the rest were no different.

2. Our teachers aren’t certified
According to data from the US National Centre for Education Statistics, charter-school teachers are, on average, younger and less likely to hold state certification than teachers in traditional public schools.

3. Plus, they keep quitting
As many as one in four charter school teachers leave every year, according to a 2007 study by Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University, and other researchers at the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. That’s about double the typical teacher turnover rate in traditional public schools. Charter schools typically pay teachers less than traditional public schools do, and require longer hours.

4. Students with disabilities need not apply
Charter schools commonly “counsel out” children with disabilities. Charter schools tend to have lower proportions of students with special needs than nearby public schools, according to a review of multiple studies conducted by the University of Colorado’s Education and the Public Interest Centre.

5. Separation of church and state? We found a loophole
Charter schools are public schools, supported by public tax dollars. But among the thousands of charters nationwide are schools run by Christian organizations as well as Hebrew and Arabic language academies that blur the line between church and state.

6. We don’t need to tell you where your tax dollars are going
An investigation by Philadelphia’s City Controller earlier this year uncovered widespread financial mismanagement among the city’s charter schools, including undisclosed “related party” transactions where friends and family of school management were paid for various services, people listed as working full time at more than one school, individuals writing checks to themselves, and even a $30,000 bill from a beach resort charged to a school. Financial scandals have come to light in many charter schools around the US.

7. We’ll do anything to recruit more kids…
Walking around New York City, it’s impossible to miss the ads on buses and subways for the Harlem Success academies. The school is legally required to reach out to at-risk students, and it has been opening new schools over the past couple of years. However, some schools elsewhere have gone beyond marketing. A charter school in Colorado gave out gift cards to families that recruited new students, and another school in Louisiana gave out cash.

8. …but we’ll push them out if they don’t perform
The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools have been criticized for high rates of student attrition. Miron found there was a 19% drop in enrolment in KIPP schools from grades 6 to 7, and a 24% drop from grades 7 to 8. Some charter schools lose 50% of a cohort each year, Miron says. And in some cases, students can be explicitly pushed out of a charter school for failing to meet the school’s academic or behavioural standards – an option that’s not available to a traditional public school. “Traditional public schools have to take everybody,” Miron explains. “Charter schools can determine the number they want to take and when they want to take them, and then they can close the door.”

9. Success can be bought
Some of the most successful charter schools are also some of the wealthiest. Harlem Children’s Zone, for example, had over $193 million in net assets at the end of the 2008-2009 school year. The organization’s charter schools spend $12,443 per student in public money and an additional $3,482 that comes from private fundraising. That additional funding helps pay for 30% more time in class.

10. Even great teachers can only do so much
Much of the public debate over charter schools focuses on teacher performance and the ability to fire ineffective teachers. While it’s true that teachers represent the most important in-school factor affecting student performance, out-of-school factors matter more. Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University and the author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System says: “The single biggest predictor of student performance is family income.” Blaming teachers for problems that are rooted in poverty “is demoralizing teachers by the thousands,” Ravitch says. “And you don’t improve education by demoralizing the people who have to do the work every day.”

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