Charter Schools

Copyright (c) 2006 by Kenny Felder (updated 2009)

This was written as a radio commentary in response to a particular inflammatory—and, in my opinion, stupid—study.

Think of charter schools as a big national experiment in education. You know, like the New Math in the 60s, when all the schools in the country switched to a new, more abstract approach to math, and it was a complete disaster, and it...

OK, bad example.

But the charter school experiment works something like this. A group of people comes up with a "charter" that describes how they want their particular school to work. They submit this charter to the state, and if it is approved, they start a school. The resulting school is kind of like a private school, in two key ways: it has significant latitude in deciding how to run itself, and parents have to choose to enroll their students instead of being assigned there by district. But a charter school is also like a public school in one key way: there is no tuition. The funding comes from the government, which is to say, from tax dollars.

Ever since this experiment began in 1991, it has been a subject of bitter controversy. Supporters describe charter schools as "empowering," offering parents and students all the benefits of a competitive free market. Opponents complain that they drain resources from the public schools, and open education to the evils of unfettered capitalism.

So, after fifteen years of running the experiment, it seems very reasonable to ask, "How's it working?" Put aside the partisan bickering, do a study, and let the facts speak for themselves. This week, the Federal Education Department released the results of just such a study, and they look pretty conclusive. In the year 2003, fourth graders around the country took the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, often called the nation's report card. Charter school students scored an average of 4.2 points lower in reading, and 4.7 points lower in math, than their peers in traditional public schools. Despite all the hype, charter schools are actually underperforming the public schools: we should just shut them down and return to business as usual, or else try a new experiment. Numbers don't lie, right?

As with all such questions, the answer is both yes and no. Even if you correct for the obvious problems in this study, such as looking at raw scores without controlling for previous educational achievement, there is a more fundamental problem with that kind of comparison.

Calling something a "charter school" is like describing a political party as a "third party." What does it really tell you? What the so-called "third parties" have in common is that they are not the Democrats, and they are not the Republicans. Beyond that, they are completely different. If you decide you don't agree with the Libertarians, you might still love the Reform party, or the Greens, or...or whatever Lieberman is these days. Each party sets out its own agenda, and other than wanting to offer a new alternative, they don't see eye-to-eye on anything.

Similarly, charter schools actually have nothing in common with each other, other than the fact that they are not the traditional public school system. My own school, Raleigh Charter High School, is based on small class sizes, a rigorous college preparatory curriculum, and a series of school-wide activities designed to develop citizenship in our students. In the same state—in fact, in the same county—another charter school, the John H. Baker High School, operates inside the Wake County jail. We are trying to give students a chance to rise to the top; the Baker school is trying to keep an at-risk group from sinking to the bottom. Our problems are different, our methods are different, and our goals are different. So, suppose you took Raleigh Charter students' test scores, and the Baker School's tests scores, averaged them together, and compared the results to the Wake County Public School system. What would you learn? Nothing of much use about any of the schools.

So, if all that is true, how do we evaluate charter schools? The same way we evaluate political parties: one at a time. We recognize that the charter school movement is not a big national experiment: it is thousands of individual experiments, being conducted simultaneously all around the country, and we can learn something valuable from each one. If a charter school is doing a bad job, then it should be fixed or shut down: as Edison said, we now know one more thing that doesn't work. And if a charter school is doing an excellent job, then we should all be studying it to find out what it's doing right. That way other charter schools, and private schools, and most importantly the public schools, can learn from its example. We can try out new ideas and new methodologies at small local levels first, instead of having each one become the new New Math.

Update added November, 2009

At Diana Ravitch argues that Obama and Duncan are wrong to be against charter schools, but she doesn't exactly seem like a friend to me.

She repeats the mistake I discuss above, of evaluating charter schools based on aggregate statistics. But she goes on to say that "My beef with charter schools is that most skim the most motivated students out of the poorest communities" which in turn "increases the burden on the regular public schools." Variations of this accusation are often repeated by the teachers' unions and their friends. It doesn't make any sense at all.

"Gifted children" are not a resource that the schools use to accomplish their mission. They are part of the mission itself. You can imagine a soup kitchen complaining that another soup kitchen has taken all the best food, but can you imagine it complaining that they have taken all the best hungry people? And (more's the affront) fed them hot nutritious meals? Charter schools do not receive any more money per pupil than other schools: in real dollars they receive less. And the non-charter schools are not suffering from any lack of students. They are bursting at the seams, stuffing classrooms into trailers to try to keep up with the demand. If charter schools relieve a bit of that overcrowding, while leaving the per-pupil money the same, that's all to the good.

One final point: charter schools are free, and freely chosen. If there is an exodus of gifted students it's because these students, and/or their parents, are voting with their feet. How to reconcile that with the idea that none of these schools is any better than the traditional public schools?

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