Charter Schools And The Future Of Public Education

Somewhere along the way, nearly every teacher dreams of starting a school. I know I did.

  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Colleagues with a shared vision of teaching and learning
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Freedom from central office bureaucracy
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>A welcoming school culture that reflected the lives of our students and families
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Professional autonomy that nourished innovation and individual and collective growth
  • font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>School-based decision-making that pushed choices about resources, priorities, time and staffing closer to the classrooms where it matters the most.
  • line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>I think of this experience often as I follow the polarized debate over charter schools. I know there are many committed charter school teachers who share the dream of teaching in a progressive, student-centered school. But I also know the charter school movement has changed dramatically in recent years in ways that have undermined its original intentions.

    line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>According to Education Week, there are now more than 6,000 publicly funded charter schools in the United States enrolling about 4 percent of all students. Since 2008, the number of charter schools has grown by almost 50 percent, while over that same period nearly 4,000 traditional public schools have closed.[i] This represents a huge transfer of resources and students from our public education system to the publicly funded, but privately managed charter sector. These trends raise concerns about the future of public education and its promise of quality education for all.

    The origin of charter schools


    line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>But charters continued to grow slowly, and beginning with Minnesota in 1991, states began to pass laws to promote the formation of charters, partly as a model of reform and partly to build a parallel system outside the reach of both teacher unions and, in some cases, the federal and state requirements to serve and accept all students as the public system must do. Gradually this charter movement attracted the  attention of political and financial interests who saw the public school system as a “government monopoly” ripe for market reform.

    line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Charter laws are different in each  state, but in general charter schools are publicly funded but privately run schools. Few justify the hype they have received in films like “Waiting for “Superman,” and those that do are mostly highly-selective, privately-subsidized schools that have very limited relevance for the public system. It’s like looking for models of public housing by studying luxury condo developments.

    How do charter schools measure up?

    [iii] Unlike most charter schools, traditional public schools accept all children, including much larger numbers of high needs students. In most states charters also do not face the same public accountability and transparency requirements as public schools, which has led to serious problems of mismanagement, corruption and profiteering.

    line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Take, for example, the most recent report on New Jersey’s charters that CREDO produced in conjunction with the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE). The press release announcing this long-delayed study claimed it showed that “New Jersey charter public schools significantly outperform their district school peers.” [iv]  Education Commissioner Chris Cerf echoed these claims, saying “the results are clear – on the whole, New Jersey charter school students make larger learning gains in both reading and math than their traditional public school peers.”[v]

    line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The charters with the best results were clustered in Newark, which includes more selective “No Excuses” charters. These schools serve lower numbers of the highest needs students and have relatively high rates of attrition compared to traditional district schools. Typically, the CREDO report failed to distinguish between levels of student need, lumping students who receive speech therapy with those facing more severe disabilities like autism as “special education” students. “Reduced lunch” students are similarly equated with “free lunch” students facing much deeper levels of poverty. [vi]

    line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>This is where the flaws of charters as a reform strategy start to come into focus. A plan that relies heavily on serving more selective student populations is not only not “scalable,” it has a decidedly negative effect on the district schools left in its wake. Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker has found that the selectivity of Newark charters is having a predictable effect on non-charter district enrollment. Newark charters now enroll about 19 percent of all students, but serve much lower levels of the highest need students. As a result, the percentage of ELL, very poor, and severely handicapped children in Newark Public Schools (NPS) is growing, and Baker notes, “we can expect that those left behind in district schools are becoming a higher and higher need group as charter enrollments expand.” [vii]



    line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>None of this is meant to deny the reform impulse that is a real part of the charter movement, and no one questions the desire of parents to find the best options they can for their children. But the original idea behind charter schools was to create “laboratories for innovation” that would nurture reform strategies to improve the public system as a whole. That hasn’t happened. While there are some excellent individual charter schools, nowhere have charters produced a template for effective district-wide reform or equity.

    line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>But the current push for deregulated charters and privatization is doing nothing to reduce the concentrations of 70, 80, and 90 percent poverty that remain the central problem in our urban schools. It’s instructive to contrast charter-driven reform with more equitable approaches. In North Carolina, reform efforts were based on integrating struggling schools in Raleigh with the schools in surrounding Wake County. Efforts were made to improve theme-based and magnet programs at all schools, and the concentration of free/reduced lunch students at any one school was limited to 40 percent or less. The plan led to some of the nation’s best progress on closing gaps in achievement and opportunity. [x]

    line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Nationally, charter school teachers are, on average, less experienced, less unionized and less likely to hold state certification than teachers in traditional public schools.[xi] (In a word, cheaper.) Here in New Jersey, the Christie administration has proposed lowering certification standards for charter school teachers and insisted that charter schools be exempt from the much-heralded tenure and evaluation reforms in the TEACHNJ Act passed last year. [xii]


    [xiv] In New Jersey, charter school administrators are exempt from the salary caps imposed on district superintendents.[xv]   


    Parents weigh in

    line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>I’ve attended too many meetings where polarized groups of charter and public school parents are pitted against each other in contentious, at times ugly debates over resources, facilities and priorities. This polarization has its roots, not just in clashing short-term interests and an inadequate pool of resources, but in conflicting conceptions of the role parents should play in public education. For the charter movement, parents are mainly customers seeking services with no major role in school governance or advocacy for all children. But in a system of universal public education, parents are citizens seeking rights and, collectively, the owner-managers of a fundamental public institution in a democratic society.

    [xvii] We cannot let that happen here.

    Still, the march continues



    line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Our country has already had more than enough experience with separate and unequal school systems. The counterfeit claim that charter privatization is part of a new “civil rights movement” addressing the deep and historic inequality that surrounds our schools is belied by the real impact of rapid charter growth in cities across the country. At the level of state and federal education policy, charters are providing a reform cover for eroding the public school system and an investment opportunity for those who see education as a business rather than a fundamental institution of democratic civic life.

    line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Stan Karp is director of the Secondary Reform Project for New Jersey's Education Law Center. He is an editor of [email protected].

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> See Education Week, January, 1/15/13National Alliance for Public Charter Schools Press Release, 1/15/13 and School Shutdowns Trigger Growing Backlash, Education Week, 10/16/12

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> Charter Schools, American Federation of Teachers

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> New Stanford Report Finds Serious Quality Challenge In National Charter School Sector, June 15, 2009

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> Study Finds New Jersey Charter Public Schools Significantly Outperform Their District School Peers

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> Statement by Commissioner Cerf on New Report on New Jersey Charter Schools from The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO)

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> Julia Sass Rubin, CREDO's Study of Charter Schools in NJ Leaves Many Unanswered Questions, Huffington Post, 12/10/12, and Bruce Baker, When Dummy Variables aren’t Smart Enough: More Comments on the NJ CREDO Study, 12/3/12 and The Secrets to Charter School Success in Newark: Comments on the NJ CREDO Report, School Finance 101

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> Effects of Charter Enrollment on Newark District Enrollment, Baker, 8/6/12

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> School Performance in Newark, December, 2012, p. 10

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> Newark Public Schools “user friendly budget” 2012-13.

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> Socioeconomic School Integration in the Nation and Wake County, Richard Kahlenberg, April 1, 2009

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> 10 Things Charter Schools Won't Tell You, Sarah Morgan, SmartMoney, 12/6/10

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> NJ Principals and Supervisors Association, Testimony on Proposed Regulation Regarding Professional Licensure & Standards Before the State Board of Education, November 14, 2012

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> 10 Things Charter Schools Won't Tell You, Sarah Morgan, SmartMoney, 12/6/10

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> Charter School Leader Paid $553,000 Yearly, Diane Ravitch, 7/28/12

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> Capped Out: How Salary Ceilings Impact Education, New Jersey Monthly, 8/13/12

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> Letter to NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf from Montclair Supt. Frank Alverez, 12/15/11

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> Access Denied: New Orleans Students and Parents Identify Barriers to Public Education Southern Poverty Law Center, December, 2010

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> NJDOE Keeps Charter Review Process Shrouded In Secrecy, Education Law Center, 10/6/11, OPRA Request Reveals Charter Advocates’ Role in Application Process, NJ Spotlight, 11/17/11, NJ Charter School Circus, Jersey Jazzman, 7/20/12,  Worker at Camden's LEAP school files lawsuit, Courier-Post, 1/30/13

    mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”> Cerf quoted in Newark Speaks, 6/13/11, Smarick: “Wave of the Future: Why

    Charter Schools Should Replace Failing Urban Schools.” Education Next 8.1 (Winter

    Christie Worked For Firm That Represented For-Profit Schools, Now Pushing For School Privatization, Zaid Jilani 6/13/11