Charter schools are public schools.
But are they?
They don’t look like a duck. They don’t quack like a duck. Do you really want to serve them confit with a nice orange sauce?
Sure, charters are funded by tax dollars. However, that’s usually where the similarities end.
They don’t teach like public schools, they don’t spend their money like public schools, they don’t treat students or parents like public schools – in fact, that’s the very reason they exist – to be as unlike public schools as possible.
Advocates claim charters exist as laboratory schools. They are free to experiment and find new, better ways of doing things. Once they’ve proven their successes, these improved practices will eventually trickle down to our more traditional houses of learning.
At least, that’s the ideal behind them. But to my knowledge it’s never happened.
As a public school teacher, I can never recall being at a training where charter operators taught us how to do things better with these time-tested strategies. I do, however, recall watching excellent co-workers furloughed because my district had to meet the rising costs of payments to our local charters.
Moreover, if the freedom to experiment is so important, why not give that privilege to all public schools, not just a subset?
The reality is much different than the ideal. In the overwhelming majority of cases, charter schools are vastly inferior to their more traditional brethren. To understand why, we need to see the differences between these two kinds of learning institutions and why in every case the advantage goes to our much-maligned, long suffering traditional public schools:
1) Charters Don’t Accept all Students
The process is called “Creaming” because they only pick the cream of the crop. Then when these students who are already doing well continue to do well at a charter, the administrators take all the credit. It’s as if they were saying – Look how well we teach. All these former A-students continue to get A’s here at our school. It’s really quite an achievement. (Not.)
However, sometimes the bait-and-switch isn’t so obvious. Occasionally, charters actually do accept special needs and/or difficult students – for a few months. Then when the big standardized test is coming up, they quietly give these kids the boot. That way they can claim they accept everyone but still get excellent standardized test scores.
Ironically, that’s what they mean by “School Choice.” It’s usually touted as a way of giving alternatives to parents and students. In reality, the choice only goes to administrators. Not “Which school do YOU want to attend?” but “Which students do WE want to accept to make our charter look good?”
Keep in mind, this situation is allowed by law. Charters are legally permitted to discriminate against whichever students they want.
By contrast, traditional public schools accept all students who live within the district. It doesn’t matter if children have special needs and therefore cost more to educate. If a child lives within district boarders, your neighborhood public school will take him or her in and provide the best experience possible.
Bean counters complain about poor test scores, but traditional public schools aren’t gaming the system. They aren’t weeding out difficult students. They take everyone. Administrators have no choice. This is dictated by law. Public schools are equal opportunity educators.
2) Charters Have No Transparency
Have you ever been to a school board meeting? Ever listened to school directors debate the merits of one course of action versus another? Ever looked over public documents detailing district finances and how money is spent? Ever read over bids vendors provide for services? Ever spoken at a public meeting to school directors about what you think is the best way to proceed in a given situation? Ever had a school director or two disappoint and then worked to vote him or her out of office?
Charters survive on public money, but once that money goes in those charter doors, the public never sees it again. If you don’t like how the charter is treating your child, you can remove the little dear from the school. But if a non-parent doesn’t like how they suspect the charter is spending his or her tax money, there is absolutely no recourse. You are taxed without any representation. Wars have been fought over such things. It’s hard to imagine how that can be Constitutional.
In sum, traditional public schools are like most other government organizations. They are required by law to be transparent to the public. Charter schools, however, are money pits and what goes down those gaping holes is lost forever from public view.
3) Charters Advertise
Have you ever seen those huge billboards by the side of the road trying to convince motorists to send their children to a charter chain? Ever hear a radio advertisement about how happy little kiddos are at Brand X Charter School?
Those advertisements cost money. Your money, to be exact. You paid for those commercials. And what’s more, every penny spent on those glossy advertisements is one less that actually goes to educate your child.
By contrast, traditional public schools are not allowed to advertise. All their budget dollars have to be spent on things broadly educational. They have to spend on books, teachers, building upkeep, etc.
Not only are charters allowed to keep quiet about how they spend their money, even if they told you, it doesn’t all have to be spent on the children in their care. What could possibly go wrong with that?
4) Charters Defraud the Public
Despite all their best efforts at secrecy, charter school operators have been caught in countless financial scandals in recent years. According to Integrity in Education, $200 million in taxpayer money was lost, misused, or wasted in just 15 of the 42 states that have charter schools.
These aren’t mere allegations. These abuses are well documented. The report states: “Charter operators have used school funds illegally to buy personal luxuries for themselves, support their other businesses, and more.”
Mountains of evidence demonstrate fraud throughout the country: Schoolchildren defrauded in Pennsylvania; “out-of-control” charters in Michigan and Florida; rampant misspending in Ohio; bribes and kickbacks, also in Ohio; revenues directed to a for-profit company in Buffalo, NY; subpoenas for mismanaged charters in Connecticut. Heck! In California alone, $100 million in fraud losses were expected just last year.
And that’s just the fraud we can see!
I’m not saying our traditional public schools are scandal free, but nothing like this level of malfeasance has been revealed. Traditional schools are under much stricter regulations. People are actually watching to make sure nothing like these charter scandals happen at our time-tested neighborhood schools. They are much better value for your money.
5) Charters Often Get Worse Results
It all comes down to teaching and learning. When we compare the results at charters versus traditional public schools, who does better?
Bottom line: the research shows that the overwhelming majority of charter schools are no better – and often much worse than traditional public schools. This is true even of studies backed by the charter school industry, itself!
For example, a recent study by charter-friendly CREDO found that in comparison to traditional public schools “students in Ohio charter schools perform worse in both reading and mathematics.”
In a study of Chicago’s public schools, the University of Minnesota Law School found that “Sadly the charter schools, which on average score lower that the Chicago public schools, have not improved the Chicago school system, but perhaps made it even weaker.”
Another report from Data First – part of the Center for Public Education – says, “the majority of charter schools do no better or worse than traditional public schools.”
However, there is plenty of evidence of charter schools producing dismal academic results for students. For instance, a Brookings report showed low performance in Arizona’s charter schools. A District of Columbia researcher for In the Public Interest group, “could not provide a single instance in which its strategy of transferring a low-performing school to a charter management organization had resulted in academic gains for the students.” The Minnesota Star Tribune reported that “Students in most Minnesota charter schools are failing to hit learning targets and are not achieving adequate academic growth.” Over 85 percent of Ohio’s charter students were in schools graded D or F in 2012–2013. In the celebrated New Orleans charter experiment, the Investigative Fund found that “eight years after Hurricane Katrina…seventy-nine percent of RSD charters are still rated D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education.”
That’s not exactly a record of success!
Meanwhile, our traditional public schools often do a much better job.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports that U.S. math and reading skills have improved for all levels of public school students since the 1970s, with the greatest gains among minority and disadvantaged students. Other results indicate that our schools achieve even greater success when properly funded.
The facts seem pretty clear. Charter schools are not like traditional public schools at all.
Most charter schools are a losing prospect for our children and our Democracy. Yet well-funded corporate lobbying interests continue to push charters as a public policy solution while instigating the closure of an increasing number of traditional public schools.
This is like closing hospitals and opening clinics on the power of crystals, snake oil and phrenology.
We need a national moratorium on new charter schools. We need to investigate every existent charter to determine if each are providing a quality service to students and not just the charter’s corporate share holders.
We know what works, and it isn’t charter schools. Support your friendly, neighborhood, traditional public school.