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Awash in a Sea of Misinformation: Charter School Myths and Realities

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Charter schools: a subject that has elicited more misinformation than any educational topic I can remember during my long career as an educator. The choruses of ardent supporters and ardent opponents continue. I encounter misinformation regularly, especially from non-educators, but also in the media, and occasionally from teachers. Many of the arguments are based on myths. I want to debunk those myths and hopefully provide some contribution to rational discourse about charter schools.

Myth #1: Charter schools can be effectively considered as a single entity.

The issues and debates about charter schools often focus on charter schools as if they were a single entity. In fact, there are so many different types of charter schools that discussing the topic must address the variations and not act as if the topic was generic.

Myth #2: Charter schools are private schools.

This one is easily dismissed and is not held by most educators, but I still find parents and other laypersons who have accepted this myth as reality. Charter schools are public schools that are licensed (or chartered) by the local school district, the county schools, or the state. Students do not pay to attend.

Myth #3: Charter schools are run by private corporations and represent a private-sector takeover of public schools.

There are some charter schools that are run by private corporations, but the large majority are not. Many are parts of coalitions that operate under one non-profit organization. An example of the latter is Envision Schools, a non-profit educational organization that runs four charter schools in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Myth #4: Charter schools are largely failing academically.

This is not true. Although studies have shown that, by and large, charter schools are not any more effective than public schools, these generic results misrepresent the huge number of charter schools that are having great academic success. They have also not included any measurement of other variables, such as dropout rates, the students' social and emotional development, or later success either in college or the workforce.

Myth #5: Charter schools are a successful alternative to traditional public schools.

Charter schools are not Utopias! Charter school quality control is no better than that of traditional public schools. In fact, it's just as varied. There are terrible charter schools, poorly managed and poorly staffed. The same can be said of traditional public schools.

Myth #6: Charter schools cater to upper middle class parents as an alternative to private schools.

This is true in some cases, but is not at all the norm for charter schools. There are hundreds that cater primarily to a highly diverse lower socioeconomic population. Many of the students served by these schools become the first in their families to graduate high school. I personally know of a number of charter schools that have very effectively reached "at-risk" kids who came out of the juvenile justice system and/or had been on the edge of dropping out of mainstream high schools.

Myth #7: The opposition to charter schools is based on the ineffectiveness of charter schools.

Opposition exists for varied reasons, but the pushback is rarely about effectiveness. Sometimes it is based on educational philosophy. The values and curriculum of a charter school may be counter to the values of a board member or superintendent, and these new approaches can be experienced as threatening. Sometimes opposition is for fiscal reasons, with the charter school perceived as siphoning students and funds from other schools. Additionally, despite foundation support, innovative charter schools often have programs that cost more. Utilizing the best new technology and providing lower student-teacher ratios do cost more.

School boards often have issues of concern related to control. Charter schools have a higher degree of freedom in both hiring and curriculum than other schools. This is a plus for the school, but may pose a challenge for district leaders who would like more control over the curriculum and the staffing. Similarly, teachers' unions often object to the fact that seniority within a district plays no role in charter school hiring and that many charter schools are not unionized.

The uneven quality of charter schools has also raised questions with policy makers, parents, and the media. But the fact is that charter schools come under closer scrutiny than traditional public schools, partially the result of resistance to these schools. Also, some of the criticism is the result of excessive expectations. Even the most successful charter schools still face great challenges in improving student achievement -- as do traditional public schools. Still, recognizing this, the California Charter Schools Association and other similar agencies across the country have standards to address issues of both quality and fiscal management and have become increasingly tough on those charter schools that don't meet these standards.

Myth #8: We just do not need charter schools.

The fact is that the existence of charter schools is a symptom of the failure of school districts to provide alternatives that meet the varying needs of students. Home schooling is a symptom of the same problem. In school districts where comprehensive high schools have provided effective alternative schools-within-schools and multiple options to meet individualized student needs, there are often no charter schools. When districts are not providing these alternatives, parents, teachers, and students more often put their best efforts into creating charter schools.

My bias should be evident. I think we need to debunk the myths about charter schools. I support the existence of charter schools because I support the provision of multiple alternative paths for students and parents. I also believe that there needs to be greater quality control of charter schools. Most importantly, I think school districts have an obligation to do a better job of providing educational alternatives that meet individualized student needs and especially the needs of students who are underserved based on social class and/or ethnicity. If this can be done without forming a charter school, that's great. If not, forming a charter school can be a very effective response to this failure.

In those cases, we need to do all we can to help them succeed, even as we also hold them accountable to be both responsible and effective.

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Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Hi Mark,
Interesting post and I am surprised that it has not had more response! I've watched the charter school movement (if I can call it that, acknowledging your critique of the idea that all charter schools are the same) with some interest, especially linked to things like the specialist schools and academies movement in the UK, and here in Australia the move towards independent public schools.

I guess my question to you is this: rather than setting up a charter school to provide alternative pathways and opportunities for students, surely it would make more sense to put the money involved in that into the public schooling system to improve the opportunities there, rather than setting up a whole new approach? After all, shouldn't we be focusing on improving teaching and learning?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

I am a current public school teacher who is also a founder of a charter school in the State of NH. The charter school is serving a need for a local town who lost their school due to consolidation of town schools. I believe there situations where charter schools make sense. However, there are other situations where they don't. I agree that if possible we should be putting the money, people, structures, programs, and leadership into local schools if they are not meeting expectations. However that isn't always a good option for many legitimate reasons and situations.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

I don't see improving teaching and learning as on the same continuum. In other words, you can have both. What I'm talking about is different environments and approaches that provide more alternatives to address different student needs, both cognitive and emotional. As I note, if schools can do that within the borders of their schools ( altho even school borders becomes an arguable concept these days), then a charter school might not be needed.
So in improving teaching and learning we need to think beyond individual teachers and think about creating learning environments that extend beyond individual teaching approaches.

Thanks for taking the time.
And I hope more attention will be paid to the more informed dialogue I'm encouraging.

Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
Middle school teacher

It's very true that not all charter schools are the same. Some are wonderful. Some are blatantly run as money-making operations for their founders, and this can even be true when the charter is held by a nonprofit org. (For example, the nonprofit could lease its space from a building that just happens to be owned by a director.) My issue is with your #3: an organization incorporated as a nonprofit is still a private corporation and not a public entity. Local citizens do not get the opportunity to vote for who sits on the board, as they do with district schools. Ultimately, I worry that this actually disempowers parents and students, who can be told to just go elsewhere if they don't like the charter's policies and practices. How can charters be changed to include a mechanism for democratic governance and accountability to local taxpayers?

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

Once again. Many charter schools do that. But no, they don't provide input for the whole community. If they did, perhaps very few would exist in communities where citizens were mobilized to oppose charter school inclusion.

Many provide far more input for parents than many regular public schools.
Those that don't should.

But I also know many districts that are essentially run by a group of power parents with a large number of parents shut out. The idea that democracy prevails in our school systems is
also often a myth. Certainly the piece that has to do with minority rights is often ignored.

Jrentsminger's picture

No disrespect, but I'm not entirely certain this blog is necessary. Diane Ravitch successfully elucidates the charter school movement and its alteration of the public school landscape in chapter 16, "The Contradictions of Charters," of her book Reign of Error.

For my response to your blog, I will paraphrase much of what she stated.

Albert Shanker, often considered the founding father of the charter school movement, had an entirely different (and better) vision of what charter schools should be. Originally, he was perplexed by the number of students disengaged in traditional classroom settings. He believed that six to eight teachers from the school would collaborate in order to design a new sort of school for these students, then seek approval from their colleagues. Before proceeding, they required support and approval from their union and district school board. The basic concept was that this school would have a charter for a set period of time, work with the students who were at the highest risk for failure, and at some point, this charter school's work would be done.

Shanker's analysis of the 1993 Baltimore charter school fiasco helped him draw the conclusion that schools managed by private organizations or corporations (or people other than educators) was not compatible with public education. Most decisions were based on reducing costs, not improving education for students or supporting teachers. Shanker noted that the real aim of many advocates of charters was to dismantle the public school system. This obviously would do nothing to improve the essentials of teaching and learning. He began to disassociate himself with his original advocation for charters.

Charter schools became the hot new idea in American education when no Child left behind recommended charter schools as an option to replace low performing public schools, despite the lack of any evidence for their effectiveness. Later, the US Department of Education required states to lift their limits on charter schools if they wanted to be eligible to compete for the billions of dollars in Pres. Obama's race to the top competition.

You are correct that the quality of charters vary from state to state, and charters very within the same district. This may be accredited to continued deregulation. Deregulation also frees charters from the financial oversight the traditional public schools receive. What is more, some states exempt charters from the teacher evaluations schemes that are imposed on public schools. This helped make Shanker's initial idea that charter schools would collaborate with public schools obsolete. In the new era, the watchword for charter schools was competition, not collaboration (charter schools and public schools will always compete, as they often compete for the same students to maintain enrollment and stay open). In addition no Child left behind pressured charters to see if they could get higher test scores than public schools. This encouraged charters to try to prove their superiority to public schools, not to collaborate and share their ideas or strategies. To succeed, many charter schools devised subtle or obvious ways to limit or exclude students with expensive disabilities, students with limited English proficiency, and students with low skill levels. Even the lottery system, while seemingly fair, is a selection mechanism, since the least functional families seldom take the steps necessary to enter.

In New York City, charter schools sought and received a free space for their schools in public school buildings and then crowed that they were far superior to the public schools who space they shared, even though the public school typically had higher proportions of the students with severe disabilities and English language learners. The spirit of collaboration was extinguished. What mattered most was winning, by getting higher scores than public schools.

The Obama administration expands financial support for privately managed charter schools. In addition to direct funding of charter schools, the federal government provides tax breaks to encourage banks and individuals to invest in charter school construction. Another federal program known as EB - 5 enabled foreign investors to get immigration visas (green cards) by investing $500,000 or more to build charter schools (increasing the rampant inequality already present in many areas).

In regards to your point about charter schools being public schools, Ravitch mentions ALEC's next generation charter schools act, which insists that charter schools are public schools, even though they may be controlled by private boards and operated for profit, charter schools should be exempt from most state laws and regulations applied to the public school sector, charter schools may be authorized by multiple agencies, such as the State Board of Education, universities, and charter friendly organizations, which maximizes the opportunities to open new charters, and the governor should have the power to appoint a board to authorize charters and override local school boards, which are often reluctant to grant these charters because they drain resources from the school system whose interests they are elected to protect. In North Carolina, legislators introduced a bill in 2013 that reflected similar priorities. With this legislation, charters could apply for authorization to a commission, bypassing the local school board. They would be overseen by the board, not by the local districts or the State Board of Education. Local school districts would then be required to lease any available space to the charters for one dollar a year. The charters would not be required to hire certified teachers. The charter school staff would not be required to pass criminal background checks. The proposed law would not require any checks for conflicts of interest - not for the commission members or the charter operators. This bill, and bills similar to it, would remove all meaningful oversight of charter schools, putting them under the wing of their advocates. What is more, many charter school operators insist that they are public schools, fully entitled to be treated the same as other public schools and to receive the same funding, even though they are privately managed and are exempt from most of the rules and regulations that public schools must follow. Charter operators want to have it both ways. When it is time for funds to be distributed, they want to be considered public schools. But when they are involved in litigation, charter operators insist they are private organizations, not public schools. For example, 2009, the New York charter schools association successfully sued to prevent the state comptroller from auditing the finances of charter schools, even though they receive public funding. The association contended that charter schools are not government agencies but nonprofit educational corporations carrying out a public purpose. By contrast, public schools may be audited by the state comptroller and have no grounds on which to object. Labor issues is another area where charter schools prefer to be treated as private entities. In 2011, when more than 60% of the staff at the new media technology charter school in Philadelphia tried to form a union, the school countered that it was not a public school. The school was funded entirely by more than $5 million of public money each year to educate 450 students. Its lawyer maintained that it was not a public employee subject to state labor law, but was governed by the National Labor Relations Board as a private employer. Furthermore, two thirds of the teachers at the Chicago math and science Academy sought to form a union in 2011. The charter operator, as in Philadelphia, fought action by claiming that it was not subject to state law because it was a private entity. In 2012, The National Labor Relations Board agreed that the charter school was not a public agency, asserting that it was neither a government agency nor administered by officials who are responsible to public officials or the general electorate. The National Labor Relations Board concluded that the charter school was a private nonprofit corporation whose board was selected not by government but by the board itself. Bruce Baker of Rutgers University concludes that charters are similar to vouchers supported private schools. They have limited public access in that they can Enrollment in class size according to their individual preferences; they can admit students only in certain grades and at particular times of the year and are not required to admit students midyear or in any grade; they can adopt their own disciplinary procedures, which are sometimes harsher and more restrictive than those typical in public schools; and they can set academic, behavioral and cultural standards that promote exclusion of students via attrition. Charter school operators, in numerous occasions, have asked the courts and the National Labor Relations Board to rule that they are private entities, private employers, and private contractors. This seems reason enough to conclude that they are private actors and that their expansion represents privatization.

In regards to the spending of public money, a 2012 study of charter schools in Michigan concluded that they spend more on administration and less on instruction than traditional public schools. Currently, 33 states permit schools to be operated by for-profit organizations and paid for with taxpayer dollars. Concerning nonprofit charters, nonprofit EMO's manage their schools and charge the state an administrative fee for their services. In some cases the nonprofit management fee is no different from the fee of a for-profit. In some instances, nonprofit charters outsource its management to a for-profit corporation owned by board members of the charter. Because for-profit companies are not required to disclose their spending, that part of the operation cannot be investigated. In some states, the state may audit the charter school but not the for-profit corporation hired to run the school.

Unfortunately, in city after city, district after district, the answer to physical distress and low academic performance has often been privatization, despite the absence of any evidence that corporate managers would either produce a things or provide better education. Rather than making thoughtful and sustained efforts to improve public schools by creating learning environment conducive to all students, The corporate reform leadership has responded by closing public schools and replacing them with charter schools.

To be sure, there are some charter schools doing good things. However, Albert Shanker's worst fears have been realized. The charter movement has become a vehicle for privatization of large swaths of public education ending democratic control of the public schools and transferring them to private management. The charters seek to compete, not to collaborate with public schools.

As I am typing this on an iPad, I apologize for any errors.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

No disrespect intended on my end either in my response to your statement.

But I'm not about to write a column to respond to your restatement of Diane's arguments. I have great respect for her and agree with her on most educational issues. But I think she has essentially mounted an argument for the prosecution, which you restate here. I don't think she is open minded on this issue and think what you provide is a good summary of all the arguments against.

But I'll stand by what I wrote. After saying that you're sure some charter schools do some good things you go on to say "charters (a generalized description) seek to compete, not to collaborate with public schools."

First, charter schools are public schools. Second, many charter schools do great things and are great schools and have nothing to do with privatization.
To be sure, there are some charter schools that fit yours and Diane's description and I'm sure some regular public schools are doing great things too. :-)

The image of charter schools as a threat to the democratic control of public schools feeds irrational fear and doesn't do anything to further rational examination of the complexities and variations.

I'm just a little guy and don't have the stature to take on Diane on this one. But I did what little I could to try to further more open and rational discourse on the subject and will continue to do so.



Dan Drmacich's picture

Interesting column, Mark, in that you've challenged some important elements of Diane Ravitch's criticisms. I hope she comments on it & provides more clarity and opportunities for discussion. One criticism of charter schools, that you did not comment on, is the issue of whether urban charters, are focusing upon equal numbers of ESL, Special Education & behavioral-problem students , when compared to the school districts they are drawing their students from. Given the enormous, complex issues that concentrated poverty results in for many students, their classrooms, teachers & schools, escape from such an environment to a smaller charter school, that may be able to meet a student's needs, would be a reasonable move for motivated parents and students. The results, however, are urban schools that are further segregated with more ESL, Special Ed., & behavioral-problem students, or those whose parent(s) are not motivated as those seeking an alternative. The sad scenario is that many of our government leaders and the corporations who are influencing them, are touting charter schools as "the" answer to meeting student needs, while ignoring the more critical issues of the impact of concentrated poverty and racial/socio-economic segregation on students.

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