Charters were once a reformer’s dream
Charter schools have blossomed in recent years, thanks in large part by federal Race to the Top requirements that states needed to lift caps on charters in order to qualify for RTTT funds. The first to publicly support the creation of charters was Al Shanker, then President of the American Federation of Teachers, in 1988. (Wikipedia) Shanker envisioned charters to be public schools with fewer regulatory restrictions, thus freeing them to be models of innovations that could serve as laboratories to test reforms that could work their way back into the public schools. Minnesota was the first state to formally authorize charters in 1991, and in 2013, 42 states have charter school laws.
Shanker’s dream–of models for innovation and change–has fallen by the wayside. In later years, as Shanker saw what became of the early visions from many reform-minded educators, he came to regret his early advocacy. The Wikipedia reference history cited above introduces and summarizes the history of charters. I believe it’s overly generous in it’s tone, but starting with the criticisms section, the article recovers a bit and does a reasonably good job of identifying the problems and issues around the growth, accountability, funding, scalability and for-profit elements of this movement.
Early in my career, in the 1960s, I and colleagues in a highly innovative middle school investigated the regulations in Michigan that needed to be followed in order to open a private school. These were precharter days, and as we considered the viability of the model and the advantages of educational autonomy, we never proceeded. Our own building was actually offering a lot of freedom and a then high-quality structure under which to operate. Such freedom was unusual for a public school district in Michigan at that time. I offer this background simply to note that I am not opposed to innovative school structures. That the AFT and NEA are likewise not opposed to innovative structures is important to note, but as charters have evolved, the meaning of charter innovation that informs public education has been lost.
State regulation of charters is spotty, at best
Across the nation, the legislation authorizing charters varies considerably. The authorizing legislation was frequently, if not virtually always inspired by a desire to chase funding from federal or private sources, or in response to think tanks, for-profit groups, and political action groups (like ALEC). Some state require charters to be authorized by public school districts while most allow other entities to authorize and then supervise charters. These other entities are often educational management organizations which are corporations, both for-profit and nonprofit, and essentially run by management folks with little educational leadership experience.
Accountability for charters is uneven
Significantly, the level of accountability that charter agencies exert over charters is a patchwork of effectiveness. While state laws suggest accountability targets, these targets are often not monitored or enforced, nor are results of the monitoring publicly reported. Federal law since NCLB requires public accountability for public schools and includes mandatory actions for schools who are repeated missing accountability targets. (I’m not a fan of NCLB in general, but it does force public disclosure of results.) Charters, while on paper have accountability targets, are often permitted to remain open despite mediocre results.
Performance claims are not apples to apples
Some will argue that the rate of charter closures is higher than public school closures. That’s true if one compares charter numbers to overall public school closure rates. I’ve not seen, but would like to see, data showing the closure rates for urban low-performing schools compared to closure rates for charters in the same districts. New Orleans, for example, touts the success of their charters, but comparing the achievement levels considered successful to national trends or national comparisons suggests New Orleans schools of all kinds have a long way to go to get up to national averages. It reminds me of the publicity over Rod Paige, Houston’s Superintendent, being touted as a great reformer in Houston when he was named U.S. Commissioner of Education in 2001 by President Bush, though Houston was 10th in big city achievement in the US. After he left the district, the misdeeds in financial management and data reporting created a cloud over the claimed accomplishments of Houston. That the Broad Foundation named Houston the best urban district in 2002 displayed a bizarre level of Broad misinformation, since Texas state tests, on which the award was based, were not comparable in difficulty to other states. And in 2003 it was revealed that data manipulation by Houston contributed greatly to higher scores. With no national standards and no comparable nation tests, it is impossible to accurately report comparisons between charter and public schools across the nation.
Financial reports from charters often mask real per pupil costs
Many suggest charters are getting their results at less cost per student than public schools. One obvious issue here is comparing public district costs, with long-term teachers, a large administrative structure, large school building and maintenance costs, pension and health care costs, to new charters with low teacher salaries, few if any fringe benefits, new teachers with few years of experience, high teacher turnover which keeps teacher experience low, and no building costs. It’s like comparing young EMTs responding to a medical emergency to an experienced emergency room staff in a university hospital. You get great short term responses, but long term the results are not that impressive. And that’s just what one often finds in charters–they look good early on, but as one tracks long-term performance of similar students, the results don’t beat neighborhood public schools. The real costs of charters is disguised by separating instructional costs from infrastructure and administrative costs. And studies of administrative costs (here’s one from Michigan) show that charters often spend more per pupil on administration than their public counterparts, while showing lower test scores that public schools.
In another arena, funding studies showing charters operating at less cost per student miss important points. In New York City, for example, charters have been allowed to operating without supporting the building costs, as they have been placed in closed public schools or allowed to cohabit public school buildings. Some of the best of NYC charters also receive substantial funding from private sources, which are overlooked in the cost per pupil numbers reported when they claim to produce results at less cost that their public neighbors. The new Mayor of New York wants to end this practice and require some charters to pay the real building costs, and charter proponents are lobbying the Governor hard to keep this from happening. This pro-charter commentary from Slate expands on the controversy.
Charters run by private agencies are not responsible to voters
As charters more and more are being created and run by private organizations, they are increasingly out of the control or influence of the parents of the children they serve. These corporate charters, both for-profit and nonprofit, are at times protected from public scrutiny, even though they are publicly funded, though quirks in how state charter laws are written, through the ability to hire (or not to both hiring) private auditors without obligation to release results, or sadly through lack of effective oversite by the state authorizing agencies. Protected by well-funded political contribution, this lack of public disclosure is important to the charter movement. In New York, charter operators are terribly embarassed by disclosure that the top 16 NYC charter school leaders, with only a few hundred students each, were making more than the NYC Chancellor of Education, with 1.1 million students and over 1,700 schools. And the data on their results shows more than half of their schools produce the same, or lower results than their public neighboring schools. Where is the accountability here? And these same schools want free space from the New York City school building inventory!
Charters now too often politically connected profit centers, not reform models
Shanker’s dream is, today, a dream deferred. Instead of a source of new ideas, charters have been co-opted by organized profiteers bent on privatizing education, and facilitated by politicians who have been bought off by big money charter operators (check out the hedge funds and hedge fund millionaires who are banging down politicians’ doors to get access to public funds.) They are expanding despite repeated evidence that their results are more often no better that public schools, and often are actually spending more per pupil when their private funding is included. They are often less accountable than public schools, they can ease low performing students back into the public system to improve their test scores, and they pay high fees and administrative costs that would not be tolerated by taxpayers.
What sense does any of this actually make?