Is the charter school model working for education, or just hurting public schools? We convened several experts to discuss the topic. You may also be interested in reporting we did for PBS NewsHour on the role of charter schools in helping turn around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; that piece is embedded above.
In This Discussion
| John Ayers
It’s deja vu all over again — and it’s appalling.
| Piet Van Lier
Policy Matters Ohio
We need a higher value placed on academics.
| Bruce Fuller
Will charters remain innovative?
| Robin Lake
University of Washington
We need new definitions for ‘public education’ now.
| Dan Domenech
Charters aren’t going to be replacing public schools.
| Mark Schneider
Where will charters be in five or ten years?
| Bryan Hassel
Charters could redefine the school model.
| Ted Mitchell
New Schools Venture Fund
The goal here is a shift in understanding.
John Ayers, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
It’s deja vu all over again, argument-wise
When I was building support for charter school creation in Chicago in the late 1990s, I worked for an effective and relatively reasonable business group in that city. My bosses argued publicly that charters succeed for one simple reason: there were no unions in place in charter schools.
I disagreed and politely maintained this causation was unproven — it was just too easy to say unions made the difference. Dynamic new schools have many virtues and virtually no one working in schools or in educational research agreed that this factor topped the list. I argued there are no magic bullets in public education reform. My guys simply laughed me off. “Don’t complicate things. It’s just so obvious: charters can be managed efficiently, and district schools cannot.”
A simple-minded consensus seems to have been reached, reflecting this business thinking: it’s just wrong. I watch in dismay as the Administration argues “bad teachers” are our problem, while promoting incentives for districts to close low-performing schools and advance charters. Recently elected Republican governors unleash an unprecedented attack on labor in the public sector, while praising every charter that comes down the pike, as if they are by definition good schools. They are the answer that fixes all.
It’s an appalling déjà vu for me. Let’s get real.
Piet Van Lier, Policy Matters Ohio
We need to put a high value on academic excellence and transparency
Education reformers take note — Ohio is a case study in how NOT to develop and oversee charter schools. Our legislators have taken a quantity-over-quality approach that has saturated urban districts with low-performing schools. The relative handful of successful charters in Ohio often serve children who differ from students in nearby district schools in terms of income, early literacy skills, special needs and even district of residence. While Ohio’s policymakers have mandated the closure of low-performing schools, management companies with their eyes on the bottom line have skirted the law. Those same operators have upended the legal authority of charter school boards by handpicking members and diminishing boards’ governance role. Furthermore, not enough has been done to ensure that ineffective schools don’t open in the first place. The state education department has delegated charter approval and oversight to independent entities over which it has been unable, or unwilling, to exercise meaningful control.
Pockets of promise do exist in Ohio’s charter sector, and districts and charter schools have begun working together even though state law has made such collaboration difficult. If we want to grow and support charter schools that can become models that benefit all public school children — in Ohio and elsewhere — policymakers need to put a high value on academic excellence, transparency and authentic community involvement. Along with this laser-like focus on excellence in the charter sector, we need to work harder to support district schools, not punish them. In the end, school improvement advocates need to make a new commitment to enact reforms that address head-on the challenges of poverty in education.
Bruce Fuller, University of California at Berkeley
Will the charter institution remain truly innovative and honest to its original spirit?
Bruce Fuller is a professor at Cal-Berkeley in the Graduate School of Education, focusing on policy, organization, measurement and evaluation.
The charter school movement is dead. The young institution of charter companies is alive — quite well in parts of the nation, while ailing elsewhere. It’s now been two decades since the first charters opened their doors, first in Minnesota and California, and then spreading like untended wildflowers across the land. But the quality of charters remains uneven — the average charter student still does not outperform her average peer in a regular public school.
So, it’s expected and often helpful that foundations and government are consolidating capital, focusing dollars on reputable charter firms (CMOs) that operate better coordinated schools. Some are showing quite promising results, such as KIPP and Green Dot, although up to one-third of their revenues come from private sources. Worries persist that the most engaged parents are being siphoned out of regular public schools by attractive charters. This must be weighed against the state’s responsibility to provide fresh opportunities for low-income families, to narrow the achievement gap and make our young workforce more productive and more engaged in civic life. That’s in everyone’s interest.
Will the charter institution remain truly innovative and honest to its original spirit? Early charter pioneers rightfully criticized urban school systems for often serving the adults first, children second. Twenty years later, some charter leaders have come to protect their own, failing to hold weak school accountable, even controlling what data are made available for independent analysis. The young institution of charter schooling may yet return to serve the public interest, demonstrating practices that invigorate teachers and lift all children.
Robin Lake, University of Washington
The future of charter schooling lies in a new definition of public schooling
Quality public charter schools will continue to expand — especially in urban areas. When they enjoy rigorous government oversight and real control over staffing and curriculum, public charter schools have proven to be effective, especially for poor and minority students. The best charters are showing that with personal attention and rigorous teaching any student can go to college, regardless of their background. Parent satisfaction is extremely high. Charter supporters are addressing uneven quality and are pushing charters to serve more students with special needs. Charters are also leading the way with innovations on instruction and uses of technology.
The choice between charter and district schools is a false dichotomy; we need to focus on creating more high-quality public schools and stop caring what they are called. Public schools that are effective should be replicated; those that can’t perform should be replaced. Expansion of high quality charters should be coupled with system-wide reforms that focus on effective teachers, innovative uses of technology, and accountability for results. More than 25 school districts now view charters as necessary partners in their reform efforts. These districts will continue to open charters until district-run schools outperform them. The future of charter schooling lies in a new definition of public schooling: getting beyond labels invented by adults so that all students are served well. No excuses.
Dan Domenech, AASA
We can learn from charters, but they’ll never replace America’s schools
All of us can cite examples of charters providing at-risk children with the education and support that will allow them to prosper in their otherwise bleak environment — but not all charter schools are as successful.
A recent study at Stanford University reports that while 17 percent of charter schools provide superior education results, 37 percent deliver learning results that are significantly worse than had their students attended traditional public schools. The other charter schools in the study achieved results no different from those of local public schools.
At the same time, many public school systems in America provide an excellent education to low-income children and children of color. For example, Montgomery County (MD), Fairfax County (VA) and Gwinnett County (GA) are among the largest school systems in America, yet they successfully graduate a diverse population of youngsters, many of whom are economically disadvantaged.
And, according to the latest Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, 77 percent of parents with children in public school give their school a grade of A or B. That’s the largest percentage ever in the history of the poll.
AASA supports charters operated by the public school system, but by definition, charter schools are the exception to the rule. We in public education can learn from charters — and we should be working together on behalf of all our children — but they will never replace America’s public schools.
Mark Schneider, AIR
Where will charters be in 5-10 years?
Over the next 5 to 10 years, I expect to see a continued growth in the number of charter schools — and I believe we will see a proliferation of charters in relatively affluent suburban school districts moving them out of the poorly served inner-city neighborhoods where they tend to be presently concentrated.
I also expect to see consolidation in who provides charter schools, with the number of “mom and pop” one-off charter schools losing out to high-performing charter organizations. This is unfortunate, since some of our best ideas for charter schools started small and grew over time. We should also expect to see more vertically-integrated charter school systems, where students can attend, for example, KIPP schools from elementary through high school (a problem here is that entry for new students at higher grades may become more difficult as students already enrolled in the “system” take up seats in higher grades, leaving fewer seats for others).
I also expect to see an increase in closures of existing charter schools as they come up for renewal and as authorizers take a harder look at the academic performance. This is as it should be: a great appeal of charter schools (indeed one of their core reasons for being) is that they are not immortal — a failing charter school can and should be closed. There are disruptions that go along with these closures and we need to make sure that students and parents in charter schools have plenty of notice and help in securing a new place in a better performing school, but closures are a sign of strength not of weakness.
Bryan Hassel, Public Impact
Could we serve all those in poverty by 2025? Yes.
Here are two ways the charter sector could transform American public education:
Grow the Best Exponentially: Though controversy rages about the quality of charter schools, few doubt that a subset of charters has achieved extraordinary results with disadvantaged children. The nation needs some of these high-flyers to grow much faster, at rates of 40 percent or more annually, like fast-growing organizations in other sectors. If just the top 10 percent of charter schools grew this rapidly, they could serve every child living in poverty (and more) by 2025. Our report for the Progressive Policy Institute, Going Exponential, provides strategies for charter operators and policymakers to expand the best, based on research about fast-growing organizations.
Break the Excellent Teacher Logjam: Charter schools can create new school models that overcome today’s core problem: the shortage of excellent teachers, those who produce enough learning growth to close achievement gaps. As we discuss in 3X for All, by rethinking job design and technology use, schools could extend the reach of today’s top-25 percent teachers so that most students have great teachers most years, within existing budgets. Autonomous charter schools are uniquely positioned to join pioneers like Rocketship Education in reaching vastly more children with excellent teachers.
Ted Mitchell, NewSchools Venture Fund
Shifting our understanding of what is possible
Ted Mitchell is the president and CEO of the NewSchools Venture Fund.
All children can excel in school and master the skills they need to succeed in college and beyond. Many will find this obvious, but in fact we owe our understanding of this in part to high-performing charter schools, which have demonstrated that children from the poorest communities can achieve academic excellence at levels previously thought to be the exclusive domain of children from wealthy, well-educated families.
The breakthrough results that propelled this shift in expectations are the result of years of hard work, persistence in the face of setbacks, and innovating to find the best strategies to educate our children. Whether it be KIPP’s system of rewards and demerits or the use of student and teacher data to inform decision-making at Aspire Public Schools, charter schools have been incubators of the most innovative ideas getting results for students.
Of course, the drive to serve historically disadvantaged children is not exclusively found within charter schools. Nor is success theirs alone. School leaders and teachers across the country are united in their efforts to improve children’s lives. Recently, though, more districts are adopting the innovative ethos of charters — a change my colleagues and I welcome. Houston Public Schools’ superintendent Terry Grier recently told a New York Times reporter, “We can’t sit idly by and let parents think that only the quality charter schools can educate poor kids well. If you see something good, why not try to replicate it?”
The operating structure of a school — charter or district — is not a reliable indicator of a schools’ performance. Many charter schools have not fulfilled their promises to students and parents. When this happens, these schools should lose their charters, just as district schools that fail students should be closed. The reverse is true also: schools that have demonstrated their effectiveness — whether charter or district — should get the resources and support to expand, continue to innovate, and help more students succeed.
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