Much of the media attention on charter schools as a solution to our educative woes seems to be positive. Charter schools played an important role in Barack Obama’s education speech
in Ohio. Barack Obama’s new education secretary, Arne Duncan, helped to rebuild public schooling in Chicago in part with charter schools. This post will not extol the virtues of Charter Schools, but instead will attempt to outline their critiques. As this article
published Wednesday in the Wall Street Journal suggests, there are criticisms being levied against the expansion of charter schools. This post will not attempt to refute or discuss these critiques, but merely to present them as objectively as possible. For objectivity’s sake, let me make it clear that I am a teacher at Ánimo Justice Charter High School
, a charter school managed by Green Dot Public Schools
They Reinforce Segregation
“Charter schools are largely more segregated than public schools.” Charter Schools and Race: A Lost Opportunity for Integrated Education, the Harvard Civil Rights Project, 2003.
In the forward to a 2003 report issued by the UCLA Civil Rights Project (formerly the Harvard Civil Rights Project), Gary Orfield writes, “Although there was an early concern that charter schools would serve as a haven for white students to escape diverse public schools, many minority parents have expressed strong interest in alternatives to their local public schools.” That minority parents should be embracing charter schools should not be surprising. I believe that our nation’s Achievement Gap speaks to the fact that problems faced by our public education system are compounded for minority communities. As a result, “charter schools in most states enroll disproportionately high percentages of minority students, resulting in students of all races being more likely to attend school that on average, had a higher percentage of minority students.”
Difficulties with Accountability
In my post last week, I wrote “a charter school must outperform the public school to remain in existence.” Commenter, jkowal, responded,
“in most states & districts, charter schools don’t actually have to *outperform* the traditional public schools. I wish this were the case! But in many areas they can be getting results just as lousy as the nearby district schools and stay open. It really depends on the rigor of their sponsor/authorizer’s accountability standards, and whether or not the sponsor has the resources/stomach/fortitude to shut down a school that’s still better than some in the same district.”
Many may be familiar with the struggle around the closing of Uphams Corner Charter School in Boston. The seven-year-old Charter serving fifth through eighth grade students had made great strides in establishing an identity offering a classical education to struggling students. What Uphams Corner had failed to do was post test scores.
Though a state inspection team found improvements over the past year in student behavior and classroom instruction, MCAS scores remain low. For the first four years, many classes lacked rigor, and teachers didn’t teach a curriculum that was aligned with the state’s academic standards. A majority of teachers left the school in the second and third years.
On the MCAS last year, Uphams Corner performed worse than Boston’s regular, noncharter public schools in math, and similar to Boston in English, according to the state inspection report. Seventy percent of Uphams Corner’s sixth- and eighth-graders failed the 2006 math MCAS tests, compared with about 50 percent in Boston and about a quarter statewide. English scores were better — 49 percent of Uphams Corner’s eighth-graders scored proficient in English, the state’s goal. In comparison, 54 percent scored proficient or higher in Boston, along with 74 percent statewide.
Take note of the year. The article references 2006 scores. The Massachusetts State Board of Education voted to revoke the charter of Uphams Corner Charter School in January of this year. The charter is revoked effective June of this year. The review of scores and practices found Uphams Corner to be deficient in 2006, but the nature of the review process is such that it took two more years for the process to be completed. The process is by nature costly.
According to “Grading the Chartering Organizations,” a June 11, 2003 Education Week article, “In most states, however, there are few resources for oversight of schools and revocations of charters for educational failure, as opposed to financial problems, are rare.” The realities of public schooling on the ground often prevent sponsoring agencies from holding Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) accountable. Each year, the Center for Education Reform (CER) publishes an Accountability Report on Charter Schools. The 2009 report states that, since 1992, less than 100 charter schools have been closed down by their sponsors for failure to achieve their stated academic goals.
Charter Schools receive funding through their sponsoring institution based upon the Average Daily Attendance of their student body. Unfortunately, charter schools do not receive all of these funds. According to CER, “Nationwide, on average, charter schools are funded at 61 percent of their district counterparts, averaging $6,585 per pupil compared to $10,771 per pupil at conventional district public schools.” Part of the problem is the path of this funding. In California, for example, the money goes from the State to the local District to the CMO or School. In California, 31¢ of every dollar does not make it from the District to the CMO or School.
Another criticism of Charter School funding revolves around CMOs. In some states, such as Michigan, it is possible for a CMO to be a for-profit organization. Designed to bring competition to the administrative side of education, criticisms of for-profit involvement with education are pretty clear. If tax dollars are being diverted from the classroom to private shareholders, even as a reward for efficiency, these are dollars that are not being spent as intended … on the education of children. According to an evaluation performed by Western Michigan University, Michigan Charter Schools are on average lower performing than Charter Schools in other states.
They Skim Off The Cream
While it is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the measured success of Charter Schools, certainly, it would be easier for a Charter School to succeed if it were enrolling only the best students from a low-performing local school. Many attribute the success of Charter Schools to just this phenomenon i.e. the Skimming of the Cream. In California, Charter Schools must enroll students when they have available spots. If there are more applicants then available spaces, a lottery must be held in order to determine who will enroll. In theory, the practice is extremely egalitarian. Schools can, however, require interviews and/or personal essays as part of the application process. While these may not be judged for merit, they can be judged for “fit between the charter school and the family” and certainly favor the highly motivated. A December 2008 article on Chicagoist.com speaks of community “disappointment with the charter school program and how they are ‘destroying neighborhood schools’” by catering “to the kids that shine on state tests, leaving the lower-scoring kids behind in neighborhood schools.”
Union Issues/Job Security
Much of the education reform debate seems to cast union advocates as obstructionist, and while some of this is deserved and fair, a strong teacher’s union can increase teacher longevity and job security. There has been no love lost between prominent CMOs and powerful teacher’s union. The union I am a member of, Asociación de Maestros Unidos, which represents all teachers at Green Dot Public Schools, seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
CMOs as a general rule seem to see union organizing as an obstruction to school reform. The internet has multiple references to the cleansing of unionizing schools and unfair labor practices when it comes to the formation of unions. I realize that this is a flashpoint issue, and I do not wish to now debate the issue. I simply wish to highlight that there are teachers who wish to unionize at charter schools who are being blocked in their efforts.
I am currently in my fourth year of teaching. At my young Charter School in its third year of existence, I am a veteran. I serve as Chair of a Department, Testing Coordinator and on various committees. In the past, I have thought nothing of working a 70-hour week. I am not a workaholic, I just have a strong commitment to my school and its needs. But this is not a sustainable pattern of behavior and leaves me susceptible to any number of diversions such as blogging about charter schools instead of lesson planning (rest assured, I am fully prepared for school tomorrow:) Kidding aside, however, according to a post at EdWeek, “In the charter schools, nearly a quarter of the teachers ended up leaving by the end of the school year, 14 percent of them leaving the field altogether and 11 percent transferring to another school.”
I write this post not because I am anti-charter. I am pro-education reform. I write this post looking for solutions to these problems. While I have attempted to stay impartial in presenting these criticisms, I hope that you will weigh in with your opinions on these and other criticisms of Charter Schools. I will leave you with a quote from a Pennsylvania legislator who voted to create charter schools, State Rep. Mark B. Cohen of Philadelphia, culled from the Wikipedia page on Charter Schools. According to Wikipedia, Cohen said that
“Charter schools offer increased flexibility to parents and administrators, but at a cost of reduced job security to school personnel. The evidence to date shows that the higher turnover of staff undermines school performance more than it enhances it, and that the problems of urban education are far too great for enhanced managerial authority to solve in the absence of far greater resources of staff, technology, and state of the art buildings.”