By David Postic
If you find yourself talking about education policy, you’re probably going to end up talking about charter schools. At its core, the charter school movement is a relatively simple concept, but it has become complicated in practice and politics. Luckily for you, we have put together a short primer to unravel these complications so you can fully understand the context of the charter school debate.
1. Charter schools haven’t been around all that long.
The first charter school was founded in Minnesota in 1991. Since that time, the number of charter schools has increased dramatically, with 5% of public school students in the United States now attending a charter school.
2. Charters are, in some ways, similar to traditional public schools.
Both traditional public schools (TPS) and charter schools are technically “public” schools: They are funded with taxpayer money, don’t charge tuition, and are required to accept any student who wants to enroll. But while public schools are governed by local school boards and school districts, charter schools are operated by independent groups.
There are other important differences as well. Some charter schools can hire teachers who are not certified by the state. Many charter school teachers are also paid based on performance. In general, charter schools have greater flexibility than TPS in setting curriculum, school hours, teaching method, and hiring/firing teachers.
3. Charter schools do not have admissions policies.
Rather, charter schools are not supposed to have admissions policies. A Reuters investigation in 2013 found that some schools get around this requirement through a variety of different screening methods. As a result, those schools can pick the students they want and avoid those they don’t. However, charter schools backed by state law (such as KIPP, Success Academy, etc.) generally ask for little more than name, grade, and contact information in their applications. It is the stand-alone charters, which account for more than half of all charter schools in the U.S., that make up their own admissions policies. These schools are the ones who skirt the “open” and “inclusive” rules of charter schools. Many charter schools are located in high poverty areas and actively target disadvantaged students.
4. Many charter schools spend less on the classroom.
Unlike TPS, some charter schools are run for a profit. Nationally just under 13% of charters are run by for-profit entities. However, that number varies from state to state. For example, an estimated 85 percent of Michigan’s charter school students attend schools run by for-profit companies. These for-profit charters typically spend about 50 percent of their budget on instruction compared to close to 60 percent for traditional public schools. These for-profit charter schools typically obtain their profits by spending less in four areas: Teacher compensation, special education, transportation, and concentrating on K-8 schools rather than high schools. Opponents of charter schools focus in on this fact: From a taxpayer standpoint, would we rather see dollars go to teachers or corporate profit?
5. You don’t actually pay more for charter schools.
Taxpayers are not obligated to pay any more simply because a new charter school opens in their area. Charter schools are public schools, and tax money that is allocated to education goes to charter schools as well as TPS. Professor Paul Hill of the University of Washington simplified the issue: “Basically, there is money that used to be in the hands of the public school system that now goes to charter schools. But it’s not more money, it’s the same, and in some cases actually less… So it isn’t that the public is paying more for charter schools. In fact, sometimes they’re paying less.”
6. However, charter schools do take money away from TPS.
Charters and TPS get money for every student that enrolls. So technically, each student that enrolls in a charter school results in less money for TPS. On one hand, public schools no longer have to spend money on those lost students, but on the other hand they may have trouble reducing their costs to the same degree. Nevertheless, charter school enrollment does mean less total funding for TPS. The important question to ask: Is it worth it?
7. The results of charter schools are mixed.
One of the leading studies on charter school performance, organized by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), has been used to suggest that charter schools are outperforming TPS. Like similar studies, the CREDO research has been repeatedly distorted and mischaracterized by parties on both sides of the charter school debate.
The central result of the study is that approximately one hundredth of one percent (0.01 percent) in the variation in test performance can be attributed to charter school enrollment. Charter advocates took that statistic and ran headlines around the nation that “charter schools improve test performance.” Obviously that implication is misguided.
Part of the reason for all this mischaracterization is the promotional effort of education reformers. This statistical research burst onto the scene in 2009 when it was referenced in the documentary “Waiting for Superman.” The ‘Superman’ narrator tells the audience that “one in five” charter schools is excellent. The actual finding from the CREDO study (which was a precursor to the updated 2013 study referenced above) is that of the charters researched, 17% (which is really one in six) had better results than the comparison student results attributed to conventional public schools, while 37% did worse.
Bottom line: Performance results of charter schools are mixed. The underlying issues are far too complex and understudied to determine that charters are all-around better than TPS.
So those are the charter schools basics.
At their core, studies show that charter schools perform about as well as TPS on average. However, the same factors that contribute to success in traditional schools–good teachers, good administrators, high levels of family support–also make good charter schools. The movement is still relatively young, so the results are only beginning to be evaluated. Nevertheless, as charters grow to become a larger part of the national education debate, it is important to understand what they are and how they may affect your community.
David Postic is a law student at the University of Oklahoma.