What, Exactly, Are We Celebrating About Charter Schools?


In his proclamation for National Charter Schools Week, President Barack Obama asks us to accept a truth as yet unproven. He writes: “Today, our nation's very best charter schools are gateways to higher education and endless possibilities, lifting upstudents of all backgrounds and empowering them to achieve a brighter future.”

Obama is not the only one building the hype. Political praise for charter schools emanates from both sides of the aisle; nearly every conservative call for education reform extols charter schools, with said accolades usually accompanying calls for the holy grail of free-market thinking in the educational realm: more parental “choice.”

But no amount of proclaiming and rallying can upend the evidence, which is not good for the charter school camp. Considering that under Obama, the basic framework of education reform has hewn closely to the deeply flawed template created by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (and, arguably, raised the stakes even higher), perhaps we should use this week less for celebration and more to seriously consider the evidence. What, exactly, are we meant to celebrate about charter schools? What have they achieved?

Charter Advocacy Fails Against Evidence

For education reformers committed to market forces as a way to force public schools to improve, the initial focus was on vouchers that allowed parents to use public money to pay for private schools. During the Bush administration, however, researchers found that when controlling for student characteristics, private and public schools were mostly alike—both demonstratinga range of quality, the greatest factors being student characteristics.

Since the public has often resisted private-school vouchers, charter schools have become the next great hope that school choice will motivate public schools to reform. Yet in an analysis of charters conducted for the Shanker Institute, researcher Matthew Di Carlo has concluded that “there is nothing about ‘charterness’ that leads to strong results.” In other words, there is nothing about a school being identified as a charter school that excludes other types of schools (regular public, private) from adopting the same policies or practices; there is also nothing about a school operating as a charter school that specifically leads to success. (Take that as your first indication that charter advocacy is more about ideology than evidence-based reform.)

But if there’s nothing about the structure of charters that separates them from the pack, are we celebrating charter schools because of superior student achievement?

In my home state of South Carolina, the picture on student achievement in charters is much like it is in the rest of the U.S. Over a two-year analysis, I have compared SC charter schools with public schools with similar populations of students. Approximately 95% of those charter schools reflect student achievement about the same or worse than comparable public schools.

In other words, charter, public and private schools have about the same range of student outcomes. As Di Carlo stressed in his report, what we know to be true is that the type of school structure matters far less than what schools do and who the students are.

So if it’s not about school structure and it’s not about student achievement, are we celebrating charter schools for reversing the trend of re-segregation in U.S. public schools?

Sixty years after Brown v. Board, public schools across the country have become increasingly segregated by race and class. Few who seek education reform would argue against seeking policies that would counter that trend. Charter schools have demonstrably not met that need because they are significantly segregated—and charter schools also cause serious concern about selectivity, pushing out and under-serving marginalized student populations (highest-poverty, English language learners, special needs students).

Since many charter schools serve black, Latino and impoverished students, are we celebrating charter schools for offering those students the types of educations wealthy, white students experience?

If political and public support for charter schools was built on all children having the sort of school experience Obama’s daughters enjoy, I imagine virtually no one would be challenging charter schools. Minority and high-poverty students in charter schools, however, experience nothing like that. They are instead treated like "other people’s children" and subjected to reduced curricula, extensive test-prep and harsh “no excuses” discipline policies. And when a high-profile media examination of “no excuses” exposes horrors like students wetting their pants during testing, charter advocates remain committed to their standard (though misleading) “miracle” playbook, suggesting that the ends justify the means.

Finally, are we celebrating charter schools for those “miracles” that can serve as models for reforming all public schools?

There are two problems with miracle schools. The first is a point of logic: elite outliers are not models for any norm. If miracle schools existed, they would be no more useful as a yardstick for all schools than Michael Jordan is the template for evaluating all NBA players—since the typical NBA player (already an elite athlete) is rendered a failure against Jordan.

But the greater problem is that miracle schools have overwhelmingly been discredited. They are not miracles at all, we discover, once the data are examined and the claims analyzed by researchers and scholars not associated with the schools. For example, after New York Times columnist David Brooks declared Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone a “miracle,” Aaron Pallas, professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, was able to conclude that the data do not support Brooks’ label. Nevertheless, the miracle label stuck, and Canada was later heralded in the film Waiting for “Superman” and HCZ continues to be praised by the President and Michelle Obama.

A similar pattern of “miracle” claims garnering mainstream media and political attention while scholarly reviews are left ignored play out all too often in the education sphere. As with charter school advocacy, miracle claims have continued to build political careers and personal success: George W. Bush’s Texas miracle spawned NCLB, Arne Duncan’s Chicago miracle justified his appointment as Secretary of Education, Michelle Rhee’s DC miracle lead to the cover of Time magazine, and Canada, above, deemed “Superman.”

But Parents Choose Charters, Don’t They?

Strip away the unsubstantiated claims and you’ll see that the appeal of charters is mostly about ideology and emotion, amplified by stories of individual children who appear saved by charter schools. And buoyed, of course, by the rationale that well-intentioned parents continue to choose charter schools for their children.

But once again, evidence contradicts what appears to be true. In fact, there is little evidence to justify expanding charter schools on the grounds that they provide parents with what they want (i.e., "choice").

Through analysis of decades of school choice policies, we have learned many things about how and why parents make certain choices about education. We know, for example, that parents often choose schools for reasons other than academic quality; that parents have chosen to return to schools labeled “failing” even after taking choice; and that parents generally are choosing from a very narrow set of options.

This last point cannot be overemphasized. As Bruce Baker and Mark Weber have detailed in New Jersey, and as New Orleans has revealed in the wake of Katrina, when historically underfunded and ignored public schools serving minority and high-poverty students are the only option against any charter school option, most parents will indeed choose the charter school.

But this is a manufactured and misleading choice since those parents are not being given an option that would most certainly be the overwhelming choice: fully funded, safe and academically rich public schools in the parents’ own neighborhoods.

Charter schools as a lever for educational reform are indirect (and failed) measures that rely on the assumption that direct measures have already proven ineffective. But therein lies the rub. As Baker points out, “a core assumption of the [charter] movement is that we’ve tried everything, including pouring massive sums of money into urban districts—more than they could ever possibly even need—to achieve reasonable outcomes. But we haven’t.

When the President asks us to celebrate and increase support for charter schools—which are essentially little different from the public schools they seek to reform— he has missed the larger point. We don’t need feckless celebration; what we need are the social reform policies and support of public schools that would render school choice entirely unnecessary.

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