Are charter schools part of equitable educational choice? Do they and should they have a role in the educational landscape? There is a need for an honest, balanced discussion of charter schools. Charter Schools are tuition-free public schools, started by a variety of stakeholders for a variety of reasons. Charter schools have come under fire for reasons ranging from selective admission processes and diversion of funds from public schools to the privatization of some charter schools. The concerns are valid, though sometimes they are derived from incomplete evidence and generalization.
Public schools find themselves in a similar position, being lumped together and judged in the same way. This continues to be an issue in the education reform movement, as some still seek to find one path for everyone and resist the need for varied educational options. I am a tenacious advocate of equitable, quality public school education and work to make this option as strong as possible; however, I do not subscribe to the notion that this is the best option for everyone.
Recent articles in the New York Times (Opinion Piece: NYC Charter Schools) and The Huffington Post (Charter School Quality) raise questions about equity, quality and sustainability of Charter Schools and also point to gains for students. While these are two respected publications and publications I enjoy reading, I find the reporting incomplete, biased and disappointing. I find the continued focus on test scores as the sole method of measure troubling, as if testing and test scores have not come under scrutiny with serious questions about their legitimacy and relevancy.
The New York Times opinion piece suggests that corporatized management of charter schools has been the reason for charter school success and advocates replication and using test scores as validation, while failing to mention that the focus of these management companies is on getting students into college Our Approach.
Part of the concern regarding charter school growth has been the movement towards privatization. We have to ask how replication has somehow become synonymous with good, equitable and necessary. McDonald’s has a replication model, and depending on your point of view, it’s either been very successful or highly destructive.
Replication without considering the unique needs of the context or individual sounds very familiar: ‘Teach everyone the same way, using the same replicated techniques so we can assess them in the same way, because we know what’s best for is for all of them to be ready in the same way for the same future’. It’s a good idea for us to be vigilant about this type of privatization and replication, which is contradictory to the original premise of charter schools. Any form of public education should not be viewed by various entities as opportunities to profit off of our youth.
Not all charter schools are privately owned or operated. While states differ in their regulation, most of the nation’s charter schools have to at least take a standardized test to satisfy accountability measures. Some charter schools have more rigorous accountability measures than the surrounding public schools, and this is often a tradeoff for more flexibility (NH Charter School Improvement). What is lacking in these studies is the consideration of alternative forms of assessment, such as portfolios (interestingly, many employers are asking for applicants to provide them with a portfolio, electronic or otherwise). Some charter schools have alternative forms of assessment in addition to required standardized testing. Charter schools I have been affiliated with had Portfolio Assessments along with taking two standardized tests, as compared to the surrounding public schools, which only took one standardized test. I agree that this is not a great measure of public schools either.
Many charter schools have a theme or a focus they operate under. For instance, one might have an arts and music focus, another may have an environmental science focus or social justice focus and so on. I do know from experience that students and parents don’t always choose the charter option because of the theme; many chose it because they were not having success in other schools. It is my belief that we need to be asking why charter schools are being founded in the first place? Who is founding them? What’s the overall mission? And ultimately, what’s its purpose? I don’t think this can be done in a way that paints them all with the same broad brush. Since many charter schools are founded by parents, students and community members, we have to at least consider the ones that do not operate under the replication ideology individually.
Admissions processes for charter schools are varied. I have worked in charter schools as a teacher and administrator in four different states. None of the charters in which I worked were privately run or owned. There were no admission criteria, and from what I recall, most charter schools throughout these states did not have admission criteria. It was a lottery system. However, they did give preference to siblings. For example, if a student was already part of the charter school, the sibling of that student was given preference for an open spot.
I can remember only one time where we could not admit a student and that was because the services required were far and above what we could provide. This was in large part due to the disparity in funding, as states vary in their funding of charter schools (Charter School Funding). In some states, charter schools receive the same amount of money per student as the surrounding public school district, in other states, the funding is less.
In New Hampshire, charter schools receive 40% funding for students. So if a public school gets $12,000 per student, charters get $5,500 per student, and they are expected to provide the same services. Charter schools in New Hampshire get start-up money for three years, so in general, new charters are in decent shape for at least two years. It’s usually after that that they struggle. Some of them are on the brink of closing and have had to cut staff and services. While more money does not necessarily equate to better quality, it’s hard to ask one person to do the job of five, especially when specialized skills and services are needed.
The concern has been raised that charter schools take away money from public schools. The thinking goes that even if 20 students leave the public school and go to the charter school, the costs for maintaining the building, grounds, etc., remain the same for the public school. What if the same amount of students left to go to a private school or moved from the area? Here is the perspective on this issue from the California Charter School Association (Myths About Charter Schools).
Charter schools offer a viable, equitable option for many students and families. I have watched the complete transformation of students and families who, for whatever reason(s), the public school option wasn’t working. I witnessed students who were disenchanted and disheartened not only with school but with learning, and some who were shut down and downtrodden, become confident and curious agents of change. Charter schools can offer a smaller, more intimate environment. The ones I have been affiliated with were smaller than the surrounding public schools, some of which had thousands of students on campus, as compared to the charter school that had between 150 to 300 students. The smaller environment, I believe, allowed for adults and youth to know each other well. To borrow a phrase from Mission Hill School in Boston (Mission Hill Facebook Page), “You have to know them well to teach them well.”
Charter schools also tend to have more flexibility in how they approach meeting standards and educating children. In essence, they can implement what works for individual students. Charter schools tend to have more parental and community involvement, which are added support structures for students and school staff.
In no way am I stating that charter schools are a panacea for every ailment, nor is this an indictment of all public schools. Some charters schools are not very different than the public schools in the district in which they operate, and this trend may increase due to financial pressures. Some charter schools have had to admit more students than originally planned for to remain financially sustainable. For instance, if they originally planned to cap enrollment at 200, they have now admitted 300 students, often with no additional staff members. This is something that needs to be closely monitored and learned from. We needn’t repeat what hasn’t worked.
While there are legitimate concerns about the direction of some charter schools, they can provide a viable, innovative, realistic option for students and families. There are many models of cooperation between local public school districts and charter schools. Some share resources, such as building space, special education services, curriculum resources, maintenance of facilities, and in some cases, collaborative professional development. This is an example of the type of collaboration that can happen when all but providing real choice and workable options for students are put aside.
We need all forms of educational choice and must work to make all those options equitable, sustainable and viable if we are to commit to a world where everyone is free to pursue the full measure of their humanity.