Charter Schools: the Landscape Today

This will be the first in a series of articles that were originally posted on the Seattle Schools Community Forum.
The Basics Today:
  • Washington is one of eight states without charters.  The others are Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and West Virginia.  Maine just went on-line with charters this year and bills have been introduced in the other states but not passed.  Expansion of charter law has continued in those states that already have them (see what charter advocates want).
  • There are over 5,000 charter schools in the U.S., representing a little over 5% of all public schools.   California has the largest number at 917 (9.2%) with Arizona having the largest percentage  for a state (506 schools and 23.2%) and the District of Columbia with 52 schools and a whopping 45% of all public schools.
  • They average charter has been open about 7 years with about 30% open 10+years, 19% 7-9 years, 23% 4-6 years and 26% 1-3 years.
  • The majority are in urban areas (52%), suburbs 20% and rural/town about 23%.   (By comparison, it’s fairly even for traditional public schools with 24% urban, 27% suburban, 14% town and 33% rural.)
  • Enrollment has increased from last year of about 200,000 more students (an increase of 13%)
  • The average charter school enrollment is 372, compared with about 478 in all public schools, according to the Center for Education Reform.
  • 65 percent of charter schools have waiting lists, an increase of 6 percent over 2009.
  • A 2010 study by researchers at University of Colorado-Boulder and Western Michigan University found that most charter schools were “divided into either very segregative high-income schools or very segregative low-income schools” compared to their sending districts, and that the pattern had changed little between 2000-01 and 2006-07. They also tended to enroll a lower proportion of special education students and English-language learners. (Miron, Urschel, Mathis, 2010)
  • It has been difficult for researchers to be able to state the actual closure rate (due to lax reporting/oversight) for charters but it appears to be around 13-16%.
  • What charter advocates want (in states that already have charters)
  • lifting caps on the number of new charters that can open in any given year
  • allowing charters to share in levy revenues, both operations and capital
  • allowing charters access to state credit ratings so that they can get better interest rates on bond for facilities
  • approval of charter schools at only the state level (rather than at a local level which is done in some states)
Are charters doing what they say their model will do (accountability in exchange for innovation and flexiblity)?
Mostly no (to the chagrin of many).    Almost too late, many are realizing that while charters make many parents happy,
  • they are not providing better academic outcomes for the majority of charter students
  • they are not being held accountable (the majority close for financial reasons but studies have found if states held charters to their actual charter goals, many more would close)
  • they are not particularly innovative (and this is from the Center on Reinventing Education

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers is one such organization trying to create change from within and are pushing for voluntary standards for authorizing charter schools (right now, each state creates their own).

From the NEA:
NEA has long supported charter schools that are laboratories for developing new approaches to educating at-risk students—approaches which can then be replicated in the broader public school system.

But many of the charter schools with the best test scores and the highest college attendance rates also have high attrition. A 2008 study of five KIPP schools in the San Francisco Bay area revealed that 60% of KIPP students left during their middle school years. So the schools most often touted as proof that charters are the key to helping all children reach high standards—don’t help all students. They help some—those with enough confidence, motivation, and family support to push forward through a demanding program.

“The vast majority of students enter during the 6th grade and then the total number of KIPP students in 7th and 8th grade falls precipitously,” explains Richard Kahlenberg, Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation.

Then they go back to public school.
In Indiana, the state Legislature is considering a bill that would, in part, give the state’s Department of Education more tools to force changes at under-performing charter schools. Rhode Island education officials have proposed a plan to increase state oversight over charter schools and to hold them to higher standards. 

Idaho is taking a critical look at its ability to oversee the charter schools that already exist in the state. State education officials are asking for money to increase oversight, saying that current staff resources are insufficient.

New York is taking aim at how charters recruit students. This past spring, New York passed a law requiring charters to enroll a sufficient number of lower-income students, students with disabilities and English language learners. National studies have found that charter schools tend to under-enroll students with disabilities and English language learners. New York also introduced regulations designed to make charter lotteries more transparent.

Where Does This Leave Us?
Twenty years ago the idea for charters was to be a hothouse for teachers to try new ideas in teaching.  The idea was to allow a couple of classrooms to pilot new ideas and find the ever elusive “best practices.”  And it went from there.
Like Topsy, charters have gone in every direction you can think of, good and bad.   I have diligently tried but have not been able to ascertain how many charters could fit the model of being both accountable AND innovative.
There is charter research out there that shows that charter school parents, even when shown evidence that their child’s school is performing no better than their traditional public school, still say they like their charter better.   (Choice is a good thing for Americans even if it’s between a Pepsi or a Coke.)
This is really a key point because if the reason for the existence of charters is to provide better academic outcomes, then they are not working.
Now, is it important to have happy parents?  As a former PTSA parent and co-president, I say yes.  Is it the state’s job to try to make parents happy or to achieve better academic outcomes?  There’s a question.
That twenty years later, in over 40 states, we are still struggling to define charters and more importantly regulate and hold them accountable is troubling.
That there is difficult in getting data from charter schools and charter school management organizations is troubling.
That there are growing numbers of for-profit charter management organizations is troubling.
In a small number of charters, for minority/high-poverty students and their families, there has been hope and greater achievement.   This is valuable and powerful.
But here’s where we come to a big leap – is there a greater good question for charters?
Are the costs, in the face of underfunding and declining funding, worth the small positive outcomes?
On balance, with the loss of funds to existing schools, is it worth it?
And, as always, I ask – what is the problem we are trying to solve and what needs to change?  I think the achievement gap is the problem we are trying to solve and, at least in Washington State, we are on our way forward without charters.
Melissa Westbrook

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