Could There Be a Charter School Crisis?

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I’m a big supporter of public schools. I worked in public schools for 11 years – first as a classroom teacher, then as a specialist, then as the director of a program for parents of children ages birth to five. Public schools provide a quality education to all children in America, regardless of their ethnicity, race, religious beliefs or economic backgrounds.

Are all schools in the United States equally good? Of course not. Some schools struggle to retain excellent teachers, some schools serve students who face social and academic challenges, and some schools have a smaller tax base which results in less funding. But privatizing our schools, or replacing them with charter schools, is not the answer.

I just read that the Walton Family Foundation is planning to give $1 billion to fund charter schools in the next five years. And they are hardly alone. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli Broad Foundation, and many others have also provided millions of dollars to charter schools. Can you imagine the impact that kind of money could have on our public educational system?

You’re probably wondering why this is a problem. After all, you’ve heard about the great results some kids have had at charter schools, right? You may even have friends who left their child’s regular public school to attend a charter school. Why not expand the network of charter schools so that all students could have the choice to attend a better school?

Because the fact is that charter schools are not better than other public schools. The Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University found that while 17% of charter schools outperformed their local public school counterparts, 37% actually performed worse, and the remaining 46% performed about the same.

There is also wide variation among charter schools: in the way they accept applications and admit students, in the services and courses they offer to students, and in the length of the school day and school year. There is so little regulation or oversight for charter schools that a recently released study compares them to subprime loans.

Dr. Preston C. Green III, Professor at the University of Connecticut and one of the authors of the study, asserts that charter school organizers are similar to mortgage originators. He believes that an increase in the number of independent charter school authorizers, such as nonprofit organizations and universities, will allow these authorizers to lessen their risk in much the same way that loan originators did during the mortgage crisis.

Dr. Green and his colleagues believe that we may be headed for a “charter school bubble,” particularly in urban areas where charter schools have grown the most quickly, usually with little oversight. Although we all want better schools for our children, the risk is that we may end up with schools that are not better – just different. And our public schools will continue to decline as they lose funding.

After all, charter schools do receive public funding, despite the fact that they are often free from many of the rules and regulations in place for public schools. Like all public schools, charter schools receive state and district funding allocated according to enrollment. Therefore, if many students leave their neighborhood public school to attend charter schools, that neighborhood school loses funding, since its enrollment has dropped.

What if, instead of private foundations pouring money into charter schools and other public school alternatives, they funneled that money into improving our public school system? Perhaps more neighborhood schools would try new teaching techniques, hire more support personnel (such as social workers and school counselors), and improve educational outcomes for all children.

Unfortunately, the very policy regulations that were enacted to ensure public school equity often discourage innovation and improvement. It is very difficult for a public school to try things like changing the length of the school day, offering additional classes, providing professional development opportunities for their teachers during regular working hours, and other things that many charter schools do.

Part of the problem is also that we don’t trust our educators. If every public school had a leadership team (consisting of an administrator and a few key teachers) that had the authority to make changes deemed beneficial for their students, I am certain that many of them would be able to boost their students’ performance. Teachers know when their students need additional emotional support, recess time, and long blocks of time to participate in hands-on projects and experiments.

It would be nice if private funders gave $1 billion to our public schools. It would be even nicer if our federal, state and local governments funneled that kind of money into our public schools, and gave them the power to create significant change. There are plenty of great ideas about how to improve schools for all children, not just for those whose parents have the wherewithal to apply to and enroll at charter and independent schools. We need to stop letting private foundations shape the face of public education for years to come.

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