Charter schools have become part of the contemporary, national conversation, not just in terms of education but, as an expression of community values, the role of government, and career economics. However, what are charter schools? How do they compare to public schools, private schools, and for-profit schools?
If you’re not entirely sure, you’re not alone. A 2014 PDK/Gallup poll found that, while 7 out of 10 Americans support charter schools, only about half were able to correctly identify the characteristics of one.
The first charter school opened back in 1992, in Minnesota and today they enroll more than 3 million students in 43 states. Given their pedigree and the amount of talk charter schools receive, you’d think more of us would know more about them. But, we don’t.
For instance, 48% of those in the poll thought that charter schools were not public schools [they are]. Fifty-seven percent said that charter schools were allowed to charge tuition [they’re not]. Respondents were equally divided when asked if charter schools were allowed to teach religion [again, they’re not].
While the above answers are correct under federal law, the reality of what how charter schools are allowed or forbidden to operate are subtly nuanced.
At present, the ideal of what charter schools are supposed to be is that they are:
- Public schools, run with public money (except for the school’s facilities) here a private group has submitted a charter to their state to run their a school, usually with the promise of better academic results
- Given three to five years to fulfill the academic achievement terms of their charter, during which time officials monitor the students’ performance
- Where teachers and administrators are more free to develop curriculum
- Offer a special learning environment, for instance one with a focus on the arts, science, or an alternative pedagogy.
“The difference I have seen between charter and non-charter schools is the liberty of choosing how to work with the material you are given,” said Jose A. Lovo, Antioch University Los Angeles Education Faculty. “In a public non-charter, a system has been put in place which works for some schools, but not for others. This inequality, whether based on their economic status or ethnic origin, causes the resources in the schools to be ineffective. Since the schools are all under one district, they must do what the district has decided, even if it doesn’t meet the need of that particular school.”
The Alliance of Public Charter Schools (APCS) published a report titled, Separating Fact from Fiction: What you need to know about charter schools claiming to refute common myths around admissions, performance, funding, and practices of charter schools. Its findings were generally pro-charter school, finding that these schools had better student outcomes, were “pro-teacher,” did not promote religion, nor divert money from public schools.
However, these refutations were met with a rebuttal from the National Education Policy Center which called the APCS report:
“…a clear sign that APCS has returned to earlier advocacy practices and defend-the-realm approaches. This may result in short-term gains, but in the longer term this approach is self-defeating. Given the empirical evidence on charter schools, there is much work to be done to redirect the sector toward original ideals. Charter schools were originally designed to be a new form of public school. They were supposed to be small, locally run, innovative, and highly accountable. They were supposed to be open to all and were expected to provide new freedoms for teachers to creatively innovate and serve their communities. In reality, the main outcomes of charter schools have been to promote privatization and accelerate the stratification and re-segregation of schools.”
So which is true? As of 2017 the answer is—both.
Where charter schools diverge from the ideas of the federal guidelines is mostly at the state level and one of the main topics of conflict is the role of religion. Sources as liberal as the Atlantic magazine say that, “The mission of public schools is to create engaged, smart, capable democratic citizens—and this involves engaging America’s religious diversity. An absence of religion in public education impedes these goals.” But, then, they give the caveat that, “converting schools to sites of education for mutual and self-understanding requires religious groups and public schools alike to encourage open, intelligent, and respectful discourse.”
That call for respectful discourse might be imperiled. In Feb. 2017, US News & World Report ran a story citing several instances where schools inserted religious practices and where the “teaching, paid for by our taxes, would appear to be a clear violation of the First Amendment.”
The article also worried that the Trump administration’s then-nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos would “… further embolden charter schools to violate the Constitution and endorse religion.”
Despite this controversy, charter schools continue to impress the majority of parents and students. Charter schools are largely free of the contentious “common core” curriculum as well as the crush of standardized testing that regular schools often find burdensome and even, counter-productive.
“Charter schools allow for the parents, administration, teachers, and students to have a bigger voice in creating something that works for the school in that specific area,” added Lovo.
Also, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools:
- Some of the top-performing schools in the US are charter schools
- Charter schools seem to be closing the achievement gap between different demographics of students
- A higher percentage of charter students are accepted into college
Some believe that charters are able to deliver these benefits because they are smaller, less bound by regulation, and therefore more nimble. Others strongly refute these claims that the performance of charter schools is better than the neighborhood school.
“Working at a charter school, I have seen all the stakeholders more involved in creating a better environment. I have seen the school cater to a specific demand from their community,” said Lovo.
Charters have a median enrollment of about 240 students as compared to the 540 in traditional public schools. According to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the average classroom size in mainstream schools is 21.3 students per teacher. Many public schools are much higher. However, the average charter school has only 19.8 students per teacher. That doesn’t sound like a lot until we factor in that these are averages and those decimal places add up to real individuals who aren’t getting individual attention.
Whether it’s Republicans or Democrats talking about No Child Left Behind or a Race to the Top, charter schools are supported by people of all political persuasions. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama supported charter schools and both tried to close the gap in charter school funding. On average, charter schools receive only about 70% of the funding their mainstream counterparts get which leads many to ask: if charter schools are doing more with so much less, why aren’t there more of them? But funding processes for any public school is regulated primarily by the local state and the claim that charters are under-funded compared to neighborhood schools is a claim that is not consistent with public school funding processes.
A big part of it is that funding gap. To fill those missing dollars, charter schools apply for special federal funding, such as Title I and special education monies. Federal legislation also has some grants and programs (especially for converting underperforming public schools to charter schools) in order to help with start-up costs. The funding gap has mostly to do with the cost of finding a site for the school which neighborhood schools do not face. But charter schools have budget autonomy which is not true in local schools. Principals in charters, for example, are paid on a salary schedule that has been approved by the local education agency and some make substantially more that principals in local schools. There are additional issues related to funding but as with all conversations around this issue, nothing is ever clearly one way or another.
Charter school supporters believe that this urgency makes the schools more aggressive when it comes to delivering on student satisfaction and performance. Charters that either fail to meet the goals in their contract, or don’t meet government expectations, are shut down. The actual effort to review schools and decide to shut them down usually rests with the local school board. In most instances, few charters are ever denied their petition to continue. A clear concern about the increasing numbers of charters that is clearly related to budget is that students who leave the neighborhood school take their money and brains out of the system creating enrollment concerns as well. Many charters are also complicating the issue of segregation by choosing who attends. There are many issues related to the proliferation of charters. Opponents argue that the efforts to improve education for all children would be best served if the charter effort were stopped and the ideas of innovation and little or no standardized tests were put in place in all schools.
Do charter schools have challenges? Absolutely. Should they be required to “open, intelligent, and respectful discourse,” again, absolutely. The core strength USA democratic system is a common, accessible, quality education. We may not (probably should not) agree on everything except the fundamental idea that we are all in this together and must therefore agree on equal opportunity to excel. That excellence is going to be individual. Every student should be able to find the path where their individuality blossoms into something of wonderful value. With all their questions, are charter schools that path? Or, are mainstream public schools (often accused of assembly line education) the better route?
Both paths have their benefits and detractions. Neither path can succeed without community supervision and government guidance. Parents and students must absolutely have a leading voice.
So, what is the role of teacher preparation programs, universities, and the many organizations who publish the studies quoted above? It is, perhaps, to prepare teachers to be able to empower students to thrive in the environment that suits the learner best.
Karen Hamilton ’17 (Antioch Los Angeles, MA) is Antioch's Director of Marketing for Content and Communications. She has used her storytelling and copywriting skills for more than twenty years, crafting articles and creating publications. She believes that communication is a powerful driver for social change.