September 20th, 2011

DISCUSS: Are Charter Schools Beneficial To Education?

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
Carnegie Foundation

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
Public Impact

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

John Ayers is a vice president at the Carnegie Foundation; for 10 years earlier in his career, he was the executive director of Leadership for Quality Education.

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

Piet Van Lier is a senior researcher for Policy Matters Ohio.

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

Robin Lake is the associate director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

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

Dan Domenech is the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

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?

Mark Schneider is a Vice President at the American Institutes for Research. He was the U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics from 2005 until 2008.

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.

Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel (who also contributed to the below) are the co-directors of Public Impact.

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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Too bad John did not think to ask Eric Mahmund, or Shannon Blankenship, or Mary Donaldson, or hundreds of other charter public school directors whose schools are not part of charter management organizations, and are “beating the odds.” Here’s a graphic from the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune last week showing that 8 of the 10 Minneapolis/St. Paul public schools that are “beating the odds” in math are charters, and 9 of the 10 beating the odds in reading are charters. They are great charters and great district schools, we need to learn from both. But when national journalists ignore people like Eric, Shannon or Mary, they leave a lot out these folks know much more than many of the people who re highlighted.

Joe Nathan

These are some interesting observations about charters, but unfortunatley made with broad brush strokes. Each charter is supposed to be somewhat unique, but what seems fairly evident is the number of underperforming students that attend them. A statistic was cited that “37 percent deliver learning results that are significantly worse than had their students attended traditional public schools.” That could lead us to believe that 63% are performing at least as good as their public school rivals! What many seem to lack in their research is the fact that many students, a majority in our school, are entering with a history of poor performance in a traditional public school system. Also, well over 30% of the students in our school require special education services, which is often confused with underperformance. We try very hard to help the students to improve, which most do when compared against their former school records. Currently our educational system’s primary measurement of success is tied to a standardized test associated with NCLB. Many legislators in our state took the math exam a few years ago and the results of their tests were never reported. Our commissioner of education recently filed a waiver from sactions related to the tests calling it (NCLB) a “failed law.” I would like to see the research on charters include a growth factor, and a more realistic measure for the students in subgroups such as those entering the charter schools already at risk. Charters, I believe, were created in part to offer more options for learners of all levels. If the public school sector was doing a better job, there would not be more than 5000 charters in the nation. Students and families would not feel the need or pressure to leave traditional schools if education officials could realize all students are not equal academically. If that is true, why only one acceptable level on standardized tests scores, and why insist charters aren’t a part of the solution; especially for those failed by the traditional system?

What many fail to understand is that the main problem with charters is not that they are successful or not. The main problem is that it creates a dual system of schools. This is extremely inefficient and ends up costing districts and states a lot more. Think about it…. The money follows the student to the charter. The charter can only accept so many students and most accept students from all over the district- not just one zoned area. So, for the majority of children in a neighborhood, their “choice” is to go to their neighborhood public school. The charter school down the road draws some of these children - taking money away from that school. So what? Well, that means that the remaining students have fewer resource teachers (media, art, etc.), fewer support staff (secretaries, lunch staff, etc). But yet, even though there are fewer students, the school can only operate with at least a minimum of personnel. Plus, this school needs to be prepared for students who leave the charter to return to the home school. Charters more frequently cannot meet the needs of all special needs children. They do not have the resources to staff a psychologist, medical assistant, speech therapist, physical therapist, occupational therapist, resource room teachers, etc. Thus, special needs students end up staying at the home school to receive services. So, what happens is that the regular schools are kept open along with the charter school in the same neighborhood. Prior to the charter school, there was only 1 school to maintain and operate. Thus, a dual system is created.

I would add that this dual system is typically not a fair system either. Now, I know there are charter schools that provide many services and are doing a great job. These are schools that have significant financial backing. They are public schools in that they really are getting a “grant” to educate the students. The school is more private than public. Charters without this extra money are limited in what ed services they can offer. They often turn kids away who need extra behavior supports or have special needs. They also do not automatically enroll a child. In other words, they have a lottery system typically. So, many children who apply are excluded from entry because they don’t “win” this lottery. Thus, charters exclude many children. The home school then ends up serving special needs children, children who need behavior supports, children who do not “win” the lottery, children who cannot get transportation to the charter school, and children whose parents aren’t interested in the charter program (or aren’t aware of it). Suddenly, the regular school looks like it is going downhill and the charter looks like it is so much better. In reality, the charter has successfully skimmed off the best students with the most involved parents.

The intentions of the charter program are noble. Many charters are very good- no doubt. There are many that aren’t so good either. However, the critical factor is that unless ALL students can attend the neighborhood charter and the charter agrees to serve all needs, we MUST maintain another school in that neighborhood. This is not cost efficient. A better idea is to give more autonomy to the existing public school; end accountability testing that creates a testing drill and kill environment; fund schools properly; evaluate teachers fairly; and provide extra supports and programs for kids in poverty, which is the main predictor of achievement.

I’m with Jupiter Mom;Everyone seems to forgot and/or omit the fact that public schools has to accept everyone and anyone that lives within it’s boundaries while charter schools has a selection process and will put students out if they do not follow the guidelines. Public schools have to keep every student, no matter the discipline problems they cause. These reasons alone creates an uequal and unjust method of selecting students who will succeed and who will create conflict and chaos in the school setting. Putting the blame on unions as a reason to create more charter schools is putting blame on a system that was designed to guarantee fair wages, which charter schools does not offer its staff. It’s time we admit that the government and charter school supporters want cheap labor from teachers while requiring more work and responsiblity for them to adhere to.

Charters often have some underlying motives that are good for neither kids nor their communities. Some may transcend those motives, but it’s hard to break free from a tradition of exclusion, of elitism, and of different, cultural and class based definitions of achievement.

None of the observers, nor these comments, reflect the more painful and more dissembling roots of many charters. In my community, notably, an elementary school has had five principals in six years, and, for almost 20 years, contained a school-with-a-school of progressive practices. In the course of those nearly two decades the traditional and non-traditional schools became increasingly similar, as one might hope, and, last year, were officially merged, to begin as a single school this month.

It didn’t work. The more elite international parents are now trying to create a second charter school (in a district of only 8 schools altogether, one of which is already a k-12 Charter). They don’t trust the immigrants and poor kids to share their common values.

Ironically enough, they’re probably right. As Paul Tough pointed out so eloquently in the Times last week, it’s a lot more subtle than changing test scores to transcend class, language, culture, traditions, family, neighborhood and the sense of self that makes college and professional education unrealistic for many very talented kids. Yet the truth is that we have public education primarily as a means of creating a common public life, a community where shared experiences create shared and sharing wisdom and support. That was Horace Mann’s vision, and is still shared by most teachers, students, parents and communities - with or without Charters. What is so profoundly sad is when parents fail to go beyond their personal aspirations, to know and work with, life and celebrate the community to which they want to keep their children from contributing.

Personally, I’d charge each parent sending a kid outside the system a “surcharge,” since every kid has a social, political, and moral responsibility to teach peers and teachers, parents and the rest of us, and to let us teach them. Too bad school differences had to become wholesale, and I wonder when there’ll be a Charter for the KKK?

Actually there are thousands of “district” public schools that have explicit admissions tests charters are not permitted to use. Why do Joe, Wana and Jupiter ignore the thousands of “magnet” schools that are permitted, and do use admissions tests to keep virtually all students out with special needs, or students with low test scores out?
Also, latest Phi Delta Kappan poll found 70% of Americans support the charter public school idea. (Same poll Dan from AASA quoted)

Many charter laws allow district public schools to convert to charter status. That is a good idea.

From the perspective of a parent trying to match their unique child to a school, charters give us a bit more choice, but only on technique. The real need is to be able to match my child on educational goal, scope, and sequence. That the government still thinks it knows my educational goal for my child, and what she should know and when she should know it, is simply arrogance.

Charters need to be accountable, not to some governmental body that is captured by special interests, but to parents. We need to be able to pick and choose from a large number of charters, and, by not picking a charter, put it out of business.

Finally, charter schools should be able to target student segments that it thinks it can serve better and then specialize its offering for that segment. Segmentation and specialization advances every other industry, and, until we allow it in education, we will continue to be mediocre.


Perhaps another way to express the ideal of a charter school and its merits could be that charters do not necessarily target students, but rather fill a void within a district or community. They should not be there to compete, but to add to what is already in place. It is really up to the families to decide whether or not to attend the charter; hopefully after a thorough investigation of the school and its core mission. The charter does not “take money away” from a public school, but the dollars do follow the students. Isn’t that similar to the various markets found within a community? Saying charters shouldn’t be allowed is a little like saying only one gas station or grocery market should be allowed per community and force the citizens into a “my way or the highway” situation for their needs. Charters can only continue to exist by putting a quality experience in place for children and their parents; and of course, following the rules. And, as for accountability, there are very few exemptions from the “rules” that charters are afforded. For schools that were created to be creative and somewhat experimental, they have been put into the same box as their traditional school counterparts. I am able to speak frankly and knowledgably about this having been a teacher and administrator of a charter school for 17 years. Programs like NCLB and other forms of legislation have stripped much of the freedoms charters once had that helped Minnesota win an award for innovative legislation many years ago for its creation of charters. It would be inspiring to see this ridiculous debate move from which type of schooling is better, to a discussion about how to improve both systems and allow families to make the best choice for their children. Students are not the property of a school district, but the belief that they are continues to come through. And to conclude, for those continuing to suggest that charters are filled with underperforming students, remember that if you have your wish, assuming your beliefs are accurate, your districts will reabsorb all of those “underperforming students” and chances are, district aggregate test scores will reflect that and then the fingers can only be pointed in one direction. Who will take the blame once we are gone? Will you be so fast to insist that underperforming districts close?

To those who complain about charter schools as representing half of a dual system, I say that the duality is not between charter and public, but between public and independent schools. Those who have chosen to enroll their students in independent schools do so in order to reap the benefits of a qualitatively different kind of education. Public schools, even good public schools, reflect the limitations of bureaucracy. Independent schools set high standards and initiate innovation. Small, well-led, independent charter schools hold the promise of leveling the playing field between public and private, something that is offered to the public in no other way. We need to stop the discussions about getting everyone to read at grade level and set the bar high for each and every American student.

Chartering is succeeding, even as some chartered schools fail. The following article by Ted Kolderie, co-founder of Education|Evolving, explains this concept well. Chartering is a strategy.

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