Charter Schools are the Solution to Problems in Education

Traditional public schools are failing children nationwide due to the burdens that have been placed upon them, ranging from overcrowded classrooms to teachers who have gotten tenure and stopped working as hard.  Proponents see charter schools as the saving grace of education that can allow these structural problems to be solved, not from simply doing the same things better, but from trying something new.  

A New York Times article sums up the purpose of charter schools, saying that “When first conceived 20 years ago, charter schools — which are publicly financed but independently operated — offered two distinct promises: to serve as an escape hatch for children in failing schools, and to be incubators of innovation that, through market forces, would invigorate neighborhood schools.”  In the following post, I will attempt to highlight these two appealing goals of charter schools.

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According to a recent U.S. News & World Report, charters “tend to cater to a largely minority and disadvantaged student population, particularly in inner cities.”  The Stanford based CREDO study also makes note of this when it says “The results point to large strides in some locations and with some of our most needy students. Charters serving minority students in poverty, students in poverty and English language learners are posting stronger results both against their 2009 record and against their current TPS counterparts in closing the learning gap for these students.”  However charter schools are doing this—whether through true innovation or by allowing teachers the time to focus on students instead of prepping for tests—charter schools deliver on their promise to allow a worthwhile alternative to failing public schools.

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Picture above shows Charter school growth in Los Angeles is predominately catered to lower economic groups.

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, traditional public schools have been suffering from a loss of qualified credentialed teachers.  Education scholars believe that a qualified teacher will have the ability to differentiate instruction for students that may be having a harder time, but the bureaucratic nature of traditional public schools pushes these teachers away while the charter system draws them in.  The associate director of the undergraduate teacher-education program at Harvard says in a letter to the editor of the New York Times that “Researchers have shown that the shortage of qualified teachers has as much to do with retention as with recruitment. Too often, bright new teachers encounter schools with a toxic professional culture. They find few opportunities to observe or collaborate with colleagues; they are assigned the largest classes, limiting chances to build meaningful relationships with students; and if they are given curriculum support, it is often scripted lessons, which undermine intellectual curiosity.  Charters offer the potential of a blank slate on which to build an environment that nurtures learning for teachers and students. When they do this right, they should be a lever of school reform.” So not only do charter schools provide an alternative to students who would otherwise be forced to go to failing traditional public schools, they also serve as an alternative that allows teachers to do the same.

A  National Study of Charter Schools report about the impact of charter schools on local traditional public schools’ policy said that”Most districts implemented new educational programs, made changes in educational structures in district schools, and/or created new schools with programs that were similar to those in the local charter schools.”  This is possibly the best feature of charter schools—their success is something traditional public schools can mimic and replicate, and these several different education policy “experiments” being conducted in parallel allow for public schools to adapt quickly and with certainty.  With charter schools leading the way, traditional public schools now have a mechanism to evolve past their shortcomings, benefitting the public education system overall.

Charter schools don’t do everything right, but that isn’t their purpose.  The purpose is to try something new and innovative, and to see how this affects educational outcomes so that traditional public schools can adopt their practices.  Parents and teachers alike find this promise hopeful, and charter school growth around the nation is evidence of that.

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Arguments Against Charter Schools

While some claim that charter schools will be the saving grace of the education system, many claim that they are ineffectual, and they end up taking funding away from traditional public schools. Teachers deplore their presence, which offers lower pay and no union, and charter schools seek to further  widen the gap between those that have, and those who don’t.

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Chart shows declining positive impact of charter schools through time.

Researchers have found that, despite the apparent allure of charter schools, their performance is lackluster at best.  According to a Stanford supported study, there was no significant difference in student performance in math or reading between charter schools and traditional public schools, and in some cases, performance went down, especially as time went on.  So why are these schools growing so rapidly?

Supporters of charter schools point to their innovative nature as evidence that better than traditional public schools, but that myth is dispelled when the data is actually looked at.  Barack Obama spoke about a charter school in his 2013 State of the Union speech, stating “At schools like P-TECH in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools and City University of New York and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering. We need to give every American student opportunities like this.”  This school sounds like a great idea to many, and this kind of positive attention gave IBM the confidence to continue funding for the group despite there not yet being any results—these schools now exist across the nation.  Reality, however, was recently brought to light by NPR when they said “In fall 2014, P-TECH told NPR, 21 percent of grades earned by its students in college courses were D’s and F’s.”  This school’s failure should serve as a warning that private industry does not necessarily know what is best for education, and that education policy is something which should be approached with care and caution, not treated as a bold experiment on the youth.

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Many teachers don’t like the fact that not only are charter schools allowed to use the public’s money with very little oversight, they can use this money to pay their teachers less than traditional public schools.  Often times, charter schools offer teachers what is known as “performance pay.”  According to a Center for American Progress study, charter schools use more performance pay than any other school type.  Some schools use a pay formula that involves paying teachers based on the school’s performance, which gives teachers incentive to weed out “bad students,” making not only their job easier, but their pay increase.  These students, which include students with learning disabilities and english language learners, get to go to the public schools, depreciating their value.

Many hold negative views about charter schools that trump their few mild successes, but no aspect is viewed more negatively than the hypocrisy that allows charter schools to take public funds, but be as selective about their students as private schools.  A Washington Post article highlights this issue by saying “Selective admissions in charters — which aren’t supposed to have them — is one big part of a growing narrative about public schools that critics say show that they act more like private schools, albeit with public dollars.”  These schools favor English speakers, do not have the facilities to serve students with special needs, and expel students with discipline problems more often than traditional public schools.  More often than not, students with discipline problems, or those who do not perform as well in school, tend to be students of color, or poorer students whose parents work multiple jobs and have little time to reinforce good study habits at home.

The reality of charter schools is that they perpetuate a stratification of the quality of education by kicking out the students who are in need of the most help, leaving them to the traditional public system, which has also lost good teachers and funding to the charter school system.  The public education system exists to close the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged people, but with charter schools, this is no longer a possibility.

Charter Schools or Public Schools—Which Model to Choose?

Many people believe there are major problems with our education system, and these problems are contributing to the teacher shortage.  I’ve spoken about teacher pay and teacher respect being major reasons why teachers are leaving the profession and why students are not pursuing teaching as a career, but many believe that these problems are merely a symptom of the underlying, systemic problem: that our education system itself needs a dramatic overhaul.

People ranging from parents to lawmakers believe that charter schools are the answer to the systemic problems in education, but those that fear this shift toward a private model of education argue that supporting charter schools comes at the detriment of traditional public schools.

Some people like charter schools because they lack the chains that hold back traditional public schools.  A recent opinion piece from the Seattle Times says that it’s time to embrace charter schools, stating that they demonstrate “what’s possible when schools are freed from certain rules and regulations in exchange for being held accountable for student outcomes.”  These schools have been allowed the space to practice innovative educational policies, which are unlikely to take root in the rigid, prescribed structure of traditional public schools.

Charter schools are growing because many people find their specialization and smaller bureaucracy liberating and more appealing than traditional public schools.  More and more schools are converting to charter schools, and a larger percentage of students are being enrolled in them.  A recent San Jose Mercury News article stated that in 2015, “Nationwide, the number of charters rose 7.3 percent.  There were 436 new schools and 288,000 students added, for a total of 6,440 schools educating more than 2.5 million students.”  The growing numbers only serve to bolster the claim of charter school supporters that the private model of education is better than traditional schools—that is to say that growth, in their minds, equates to a sign of success.

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According to a Poll from Education Next, an education policy analyst group, teachers are actually most opposed to charter schools of any other group interviewed.  This isn’t all that surprising, as charter schools represent the private model—one that doesn’t support teachers’ unions.  Teachers are also quick to point out that charter schools offer less pay than traditional public schools, or that charters promote a performance based pay system, and some would say that this is actually an appealing aspect of charter schools, because many people are paid this way, and why should teachers be any different?  Those with more egalitarian motives counter that argument by saying that such a competitive environment will result in a stratified education system, where the best teachers go to the schools that can pay the most, which due to schools being funded in part by local property taxes, means that the wealthy benefit while the poor do not.

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One question that puts a damper on people’s appreciation of charter schools is their funding source.  Charter schools draw from the same source as traditional public schools, meaning that as charter schools grow to use up more of that funding, traditional public schools are left with less funding.  People don’t like this, and according to a PDK/Gallup poll, 65% of Americans say they would oppose charter schools in their area if it meant reducing the amount of funds available to regular public schools.  Since charters draw from the same funding as traditional schools, but their competitive model also tends to draw in the talented teachers who have become disenfranchised by the bureaucracy, its easy to see that traditional schools will suffer when a charter school is established in the area.

Charter schools represent a privatization, and some good comes with that privatization along with some bad.  But the question is: does the good outweigh the bad?  Quality education for students is at stake, but it may mean sacrificing things like teacher pay, which could lower the quality of education students receive in the long run.