Are Charter Schools Good or Evil?

by Jeff Camp | January 7, 2020 | 3 Comments
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Charter Schools and the Politics of Anger

Lately, America's divisions seem more stark than ever. Red! Blue! Black! White!

Subtlety? Nuance? Pshaw! Superheroes don't wear plaid.

Most people don't know very much about charter schools, but in world where division is normal, it's tempting to assume that they are either good or evil, possibly in a way that connects with other political issues. The problem with simplistic political sparring about education is that real children are involved.

The purpose of this post is to equip you to participate in a civilized, informed conversation about charter schools.

What Are Charter Schools?

As explained in Ed100 Lesson 5.5, charter schools are public schools that operate independently from a school district. They are created through a petition process involving parents and teachers. By law, charter schools in California must be non-selective, non-religious, not-for-profit, and tuition-free. They operate with somewhat less regulation than traditional schools, subject to a set of commitments defined in their charter. Unlike traditional public schools, if they don't deliver on their commitments, they can be shut down. Charter schools are more likely than district schools to employ teachers that are not represented by a union.

How Common are Charter Schools?

About a tenth of the K-12 students in California attend a charter school, a higher fraction than in most other states. As usual, this average conceals important variation. Charter schools are scarce in some areas of the state and plentiful in others. In Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, for example, about one out of five students attends a charter school. The charter enrollment rate tends to be lower in areas that are more wealthy or more rural.

Are Charter Schools Private?

No. In California, charter schools are public schools that operate independently from school districts. The myth that charter schools are a form of "privatization" is a good example of the reiteration effect, a cognitive bias to accept ideas as true if frequently repeated.

To be clear, in some some other states, public school systems are pursuing strategies that can be reasonably thought of as privatization. For example, Florida has a growing school voucher system that uses state education funds to subsidize student tuition at private schools including religious schools. Voucher programs are illegal in California.

Are Charter Schools Better? Sometimes.

Some of California's best public schools are charters

The are are well over a thousand charter schools in California. Each is different. Some are great. Some aren't. None are magic.

As discussed in Lesson 5.5, in terms of test results, graduation rates and other objective measures, on average charter schools tend to perform about the same as conventional public district schools.

Averages are blunt measures, though. When families enroll their child in school, usually they opt for the school nearby. In many areas of the state, parents don't really have a choice about it — students are assigned to a school based on where they live. Charter schools do not have these residence requirements. They began as a way to give families some choice, and that remains an important part of their appeal.

Oakland's best high-poverty schools for black studentsOakland's best high-poverty schools for black students

In general, educational outcomes are stubbornly low for low-income black and Latinx students. Schools with lots of poor kids tend to have lower test scores, more school discipline issues, and lower graduation rates. But some schools stand out as exceptions, helping kids "beat the odds". A disproportionate share of those exceptional schools are charters schools.

In 2019, Go Public Schools, a nonprofit organization, examined test score data in all of the schools in Oakland where at least half of the students qualify for free or reduced price meals (a common proxy for poverty). According to this research, the city's top schools for Black students and Latinx students strongly tended to be charter schools.

What Drove Growth in Charter School Enrollment?

Let's back up a little. Enrollment in California charter schools grew strongly in the first two decades of the millennium. Federal policy played a huge role.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), public schools were expected to continuously improve test scores for all groups of students in every school. It was a pushy law with a romantic goal, and charter schools played an important role in it. If public district schools couldn't keep up with the rising expectations for their students, well, perhaps public charter schools could do better. Charter schools were explicitly seen as a remedy for weak district schools. For many years there was considerable bipartisan support for this muscular vision of school accountability, but improving student learning turned out to be harder than the optimists expected. Understandably, teachers felt blamed for failing to work miracles.

As one of its last acts, the Obama administration pushed through bipartisan legislation to replace NCLB with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The law substantially removed the federal government from the role of holding schools accountable for results. Each state was freed to fashion its own system, so long as it committed to identify the lowest-performing schools and do something about them. California opted for a positive-minded approach: instead of requiring underperforming schools and districts to close, for example, they would be provided with a county-led system of support to help them improve.

Meanwhile, demographic and economic trends brought their own pressures to the public education system. For decades, California's population had been growing, seemingly without end. Growth felt normal for school districts: many strained to find enough classrooms, teachers and administrators to keep up. Under those conditions, the growth of charter schools hadn't been much of a worrying factor.

Why Charter School Growth Will Slow Down

The Great Recession marked a turning point in California's education system. Population growth in California flattened, and increasing numbers of school districts faced declining enrollment, a new and disturbing challenge. Funding for schools is based on attendance, so the growth of charter schools further aggravated the financial pressure on school districts — when a student moves from a district public school to a charter public school, the funding follows. In 2019, many districts (especially large, urban ones) found themselves dealing with multiple sources of financial stress at once, including declining enrollment, rising pension costs, and increased competition from charter schools.

Downsizing is a brutal process. When a district has more schools than it can afford to keep open, the school board faces a Sophie's choice: which schools will it close? This kind of decision has always been difficult for school boards, but it became even harder in the late 2010s as they responded to new precedents related to the Voting Rights Act. In the past, most school board seats were elected on an at-large basis: that is, voters throughout the school district cast ballots to select all board members. This has changed: in districts with more than a handful of schools, elections to fill board seats are now very local. Voters select only the board member that represents their own neighborhood, not the district at large. When a school district has to downsize, board members have an enormous incentive to preserve the schools in their own neighborhood, regardless of their quality.

How Are Unions Involved in Charter Schools?

Teachers unions represent the interests of their members. That's their job. In most California charter schools, teachers are not union members, and this dynamic makes the unions' responsibility pretty clear: their members' interests tend to align with those of traditional district schools more cleanly than they align with those of charter schools.

Do Charter Schools Harm Traditional Schools?

From the start, competing for enrollment was an essential part of the "big idea" for charter schools. Over time, the theory goes, parental choices impose a kind of market pressure on schools. Schools that do a great job of satisfying parents win enrollment and the funding that comes with it. Schools that don't satisfy parents lose enrollment, and must scale back or close down.

Until 2020, proposals to form or renew charter schools were evaluated essentially on a standalone basis. If a charter school presented a solid and credible plan, based on specific criteria, districts were obligated to authorize it. The impact that a charter could have on other schools, such as loss of enrollment, was not included among those criteria. Good plans had to be accepted.

The rules changed significantly with the passage of AB 1505, which established that negative effects on other schools are a valid basis for a district not to authorize or reauthorize a charter school.

The argument against charter school competition was clarified by Gordon Lafer of the University of Oregon's Labor and Research Center in an influential paper, Breaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts. Charter school advocates counter that shielding traditional schools from competition is unethical, and amounts to trapping children in schools when a better alternative is at hand.

What Happens to Charter Schools Next?

Most provisions of AB 1505 will take effect beginning in June of 2020. The practical implications of this complex law will have to be worked out over time, probably beginning with the sticky issue ofcharter renewals. The law generally establishes that that districts must re-authorize charters that have produced very strong academic results, based on the California School Dashboard. It also establishes that they may not re-authorize charters with very weak academic results. An awful lot of schools fall in the middle — the law leaves room for local judgment about them. In theory, districts could refuse reauthorization of charter schools on the basis of Dashboard performance even if they outperform similar district schools.

The Cost of Conflict

Public education is one of the largest functions of state and local government. Democracy is a competitive system, famously the worst form of government except for all the others. As described above, charter schools have become the lightning rod for conflict for reasons that are not necessarily centered on whether they are effective or ineffective at educating children.

In the course of making choices, democracy generates bruised winners, sore losers, and a whole lot of negative energy. We put up with it, but the overall negativity leaves voters with a pretty low opinion of their leaders and the system as a whole. Allowing parents a choice of schools creates a competitive system, too. The case for school choice argues that when schools compete, parents have choices, and children get better schools. It is important to acknowledge that the competitive process has hidden costs, too. School choice can be nasty. Under pressure, charter school boosters have a lot of bad things to say about traditional public schools, and vice versa. Negative messages stick more easily than positive ones, and unfortunately the sum of the messages can produce a jaded view of both sides.

Extensively updated January, 2020.

Questions & Comments

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user avatar
January 7, 2020 at 12:11 pm
Nicely balanced article. The challenge for California is not charters vs. traditional schools. It is that the K-12 system in whole is failing to adequately educate our students. Just using reading as an example, about one half of our third grade students cannot read at grade level, and it is much worse for students who are black, brown and/or poor. If the existing system was high performing then it would be much easier to say the system does not need significant change or the disruptions to the current order of things that charter schools bring. If a charter school performs well - and gives parents a choice of a better school for their own child - then how can I as an educator and school board member oppose this? At the same time, I continue to support and fight for improvements in traditional schools. And if we can learn how to serve our students better from other schools and districts - traditional and charter - let's do it.
user avatar
Caroline Grannan August 28, 2018 at 9:51 pm
Here's a useful commentary giving further information on the issues with charter schools.
user avatar
gresimmo1 August 22, 2018 at 8:53 am
Thank you for listing a set of pros and cons. In the end, do you prefer allowing charter schools to exist or would you rather have a single public school system where all resources are directed at making it as good as possible?
user avatar
Caryn August 22, 2018 at 11:06 am
Our pleasure! Thanks for your comment, gresimmo1. Charter schools aren't going away any time soon. As far as preferences go, I prefer that every California child receives a great education :) How that education is delivered, whether through a fabulous public school, a great private school or a terrific charter school, I think should be an individual decision. That's one reason why Ed100 is committed to helping parents learn about the education system--there are important choices to be made and informed parents are better prepared to make them.
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