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The Case Against Charter Schools

A proponent responds to the 10 most common complaints about the charter movement by Bruno V. Manno

Since the first charter school law was passed in 1991, the number of charter schools has grown by leaps and bounds-from one St. Paul, Minn., school that opened in 1992 with 35 students to nearly 2,100 schools in 34 states and the District of Columbia that enroll around 518,000 students, or slightly more than 1 percent of the students attending U.S. public schools.

Charter schools are public schools, open to all who wish to attend, funded with tax dollars and accountable to an authoritative public agency and its constituents for its results. But charters are different from standard-issue public schools: They can be created by almost anyone, they are independent and exempt from many state and local regulations, they are attended by youngsters and staffed by educators who are there by choice, and they can be closed for not producing satisfactory results.

Charters are attracting considerable attention, especially in urban America where they are looking like a possible alternative for the system itself, creating a new education marketplace for many American communities. Today, for example, nearly 15 percent of the District of Columbia's public schoolchildren attend 33 charter schools. Almost 18 percent of Kansas City's children are studying in charter schools. In Arizona, charters comprise one-fifth of the state's public schools. San Diego County has 43 charters. Philadelphia has seen more than 30 charters arise in three years, now accounting for more than 10 percent of all its public schools.

Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League, argues that transforming urban education includes "charterizing" every school. Reinventing-government guru David Osborne invites us to "imagine, for a moment, a public education system in which every school is a charter school." The Ford Foundation and Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government awarded one of their "Innovations in American Government Awards"—the Oscars of public service—to Minnesota's pioneering charter law.

Even the mainstream Education Commission of the States has proposed a model of school governance based on the charter principles of autonomy, choice and accountability for results. Within this framework, school boards would charter (or contract for) and fund schools but not operate or run them. They would exercise public oversight by holding schools accountable for the terms of their charters (or performance contracts).

Any bold reform effort like the charter strategy inevitably raises a host of big-picture questions, doubts and objections. Though some charter critics pose meretricious and self-serving objections, others are sincerely concerned with the well-being of children and the soul of public education.

Rebutting Allegations

What follows are the 10 most common allegations raised against charter schools along with responses to those weighty charges. Some complaints are legitimate, others specious. Most lie somewhere in between.

Allegation No. 1: Charter schools rob funds and students from regular public schools. While they may benefit a few youngsters, they hurt those left behind by biting into district budgets.

While it is true that charter funds are typically subtracted from district revenues, that is because their students are subtracted from district rolls. The fundamental concept of any school choice regimen is that the money follows the child to the school the family selects. Public dollars are meant to be spent for the education of that particular student, not entitlements for school systems. The premise of the allegation is backwards.

Moreover, in all those jurisdictions where only local school boards can grant charters to schools, charter funding must be locally negotiated. Though funding formulae vary by state, charter schools on average receive about four-fifths of the dollars per pupil that conventional public schools receive, according to estimates by the Center for Education Reform. In some states, only the state's share of the student dollar reaches the charter school, leaving the district with its locally generated revenue and fewer students to educate.

In other states, local school systems may profit from charter schools via overhead charges and licensing fees. In yet other states, school districts continue receiving state money for youngsters who leave for charter schools because legislators opted to continue paying districts (on a diminishing basis) for funds "lost" when students transfer to charters. Massachusetts calls this "reimbursement," but elsewhere it is known as "double-dipping," because districts receive funding for children they are not educating.

Conversely, charter schools sometimes bring new money into a district by drawing onto district rolls (and into the state funding formulae) children who wouldn't otherwise be there: dropouts, home-schoolers, private school pupils and youngsters who live outside the district but choose to enroll in charter schools located in it.

Ultimately, this allegation boils down to the question of whose youngsters (and dollars) are these, anyway? School funds are appropriated to provide the best possible education for a community's youngsters, not to fill district coffers or, to keep failing schools in the black. The surest way to keep students from leaving district schools is running schools that nobody wants to leave, not by barring the exit.

Allegation No. 2: Charter schools are too risky and unproven. They gamble with children's lives and taxpayers' hard-earned dollars.

Risks come with charter schools, as with any major organizational innovation. But the vast majority of today's charters are thriving. The U.S. Department of Education's study of charter schools reports that over 70 percent of the schools have waiting lists. State and local reports document that their clients are mostly satisfied.

When critics allege that charters gamble with children's lives, they often cite the fact that many charter schools employ uncertified teachers. What they miss is that strong charter laws welcome educators from diverse backgrounds precisely because state certification programs often fail to ensure quality and because policymakers are eager to draw more individuals with talent and energy into the state's classrooms.

The surest way to keep risk within bounds for charter schools includes three elements:

Vigilant sponsors. No school should be awarded a charter unless its sponsor is satisfied that it will produce good citizens according to a reasonable, publicly defensible conception of citizenship. This should include a clear sense of the pluralistic nature of American society rather than a particularistic infatuation with any one class, race or group.

Transparent schools with ample consumer information. If a school imparts divisive or bizarre ideas or hateful attitudes to its pupils, this should be visible to parents, the media, the community and the school's sponsor. These schools can be transparent by providing ample public information about what they actually teach.

A coherent academic core required of every school and measured by regular assessments. A solid core curriculum for all schools, charters included, will limit the opportunity for educational mischief (and, admittedly, for unbridled curricular diversity) to the portion of the academic program that lies beyond the common core.

Accountable to Whom?

Allegation No. 3: Charter schools are not truly accountable. Only when they become notorious does anything happen to them. Practically none actually get closed down for academic malfeasance.

This is an oft-voiced and serious concern. About 60 charter schools have been closed for a variety of reasons, and effective accountability systems for charters are still few and far between. In some states, the requisite standards and assessments are not in place; the cognizant boards and bureaucracies do not know how-or don't much desire-to monitor their charter schools; or the law is muddy as to whether anyone really has authority to do anything about weak performance by charter schools.

Only the earliest stirrings of serious self-policing are evident in the charter movement itself. And there are troubling instances of political pressure by charter operators seeking to ensure that the bar isn't set too high or to exempt them from sanctions that would otherwise apply to a failing school. (The argument is usually that "We can trust the marketplace to handle accountability.")

Conversely, charter schools are helping public education redefine education accountability. The modal form of public school accountability depends primarily on rules and compliance. But the systemic movement's effort to set high standards for all young people combined with the spread of choices as exemplified in charter schools invite a different approach to accountability. This approach is propelled by public marketplaces in which a school's clients and stakeholders reward its successes, punish its failures and send it signals about what needs to change.

Allegation No. 4: Charter schools are trendy and get plenty of hype but are not really different from regular schools. They do little that is not already being done by some regular school somewhere.

When critics suggest that little happens in charter schools that is not found elsewhere, they are partly correct. Innovation, though, doesn't always mean plowing virgin soil. Many charter programs are variations on familiar curricular and pedagogical themes so that charter innovation also lies in the rejection of fads and the embrace of the tried and true. A Massachusetts study found most charters were innovative while implementing "good old-fashioned education practices," which were termed "retrovations."

Education arrangements familiar to cosmopolitans can appear revolutionary to locals who never had access to anything of the sort. Certainly, the possibility exists that corporate-style charter chains will resemble cookie-cutters, delivering the same program in Worcester as in Wichita. If it's a solid program and if its type is not available to families in Worcester or Wichita, it may be plenty innovative in the eyes of its clients.

Charters are promoting new approaches to delivering instruction. Some that use on-line teaching exist primarily in cyberspace. Less dramatic innovations are also visible in organizational and institutional arrangements, such as distinctive grade clusters and multiyear instructional teams.

Charters are also institutional innovations. They invite us to think of public schools as autonomous, self-governing institutions that are not controlled or run by a school district.

Finally, it's ironic that some critics who allege that charter schools are not very different from conventional schools are the same people who charge these are eccentric places run by kooks. They want schools that are both different and the same.

Impairing Equity

Allegation No. 5: Charter schools undermine our society's commitment to educational excellence for all children, impairing equity and exacerbating inequalities of opportunity. They are elitist academies that cream the most fortunate kids and marginalize the poor and minorities.

This is a legitimate concern in some charter schools. But the weight of evidence pushes toward the opposite conclusion: Many charters are conscientiously trying to serve more than their share of difficult-to-educate children. Far from creaming, they often receive many disadvantaged, troubled or at-risk youth, sometimes pointed in their direction by regular schools for whom these youngsters have become problems.

There are three starting points for examining what educational equity denotes within and across schools. It can mean a balanced distribution of students by race and socioeconomic background; an equal distribution of resources, especially money; and high performance standards for all students who are educated to those standards.

The U.S. Department of Education's charter school reports provide ample information on equity as a balanced distribution of students. They indicate charters serve a higher proportion of minority students than all U.S. public schools (51.8 percent vs. 41 percent) and have a slightly higher percentage of poor kids as determined by students eligible for the federal lunch program (38.7 percent vs. 37.3 percent) They enroll a smaller percentage of special education students (8.4 percent vs. 11.3 percent). Nearly one in four charter schools was founded to serve a special population.

These data vary by state and district. Charter schools in six of the 13 states that had 20 or more charter schools enrolled at least 20 percent more nonwhite students than all public schools in those states. When comparing charters schools and their surrounding districts, one finds 69 percent of charters are not distinct from the district regarding percentage of nonwhite students: 17 percent have a higher percentage of students of color than surrounding districts, and 14 percent had a lower percentage of students of color than the surrounding districts.

Admittedly, some charter schools are attended mostly by white, upper-middle class youngsters, but this is more apt to result from the schools' location and thrust of their educational programs than from discriminatory admission practices.

In the same vein, many charters that are serious about academic standards and behavioral norms may counsel out, suspend or expel youngsters who cannot or will not comply-precisely the impulse that is leading more public school systems to create alternative schools for disruptive students.

The evidence for equity as an equal distribution of resources leads to a conclusion seldom reached by those who claim to be advocates for school equity: charter schools and their students are subject to a two-fold inequity. Many schools don't receive the same per pupil allocations that district schoolchildren receive and few schools receive any state or district money for capital expenditures.

Finally, a U.S. Department of Education report on charter school accountability provides strong evidence to support the claim that charter schools are serious about having high standards for all their youngsters and about being held accountable for making sure students master these standards. Another federal report on student achievement in charters presents convincing evidence of these schools' success in helping disadvantaged students learn to high standards. But it's too early to reach any definitive conclusions about whether the charter strategy can be a core mechanism for educating all students, especially at-risk youngsters, to high standards.

Allegation No. 6: Charter schools don't adequately serve disabled children. Some disregard federal and state special education statutes. Some do not have the staff or resources to operate a quality program. Others deter the disabled from enrolling.

Some charter schools don't seem to know how to handle disabled students, and some are ill-prepared for youngsters with severe disabilities or esoteric needs. Undoubtedly, some schools have hinted to families that their disabled children might be better served elsewhere.

Just as parents of non-disabled youngsters must be clear-eyed about what a charter school will and won't do for their child-it might not, for example, allow him to play varsity football or learn Japanese-so too should the parents of disabled children be careful school shoppers. If they want the full panoply of government-mandated procedures and services, they may be happier elsewhere. If their child has a disability that requires a particular treatment, a given school-charter or otherwise-may or may not be the best place to obtain it.

Conversely, some charter schools fill particular niches for disabled youngsters. The Metro Deaf Charter School in St. Paul, Minn., enrolls only deaf students in grades K-6 and is nationally regarded as a model for the education of hearing-impaired pupils.

Charter schools are popular with those parents of disabled youngsters who have sought them out, often because such families want something distinct from the cumbersome procedures of conventional special education. In a research project in which I was involved, among the parents who indicated that their children have disabilities or other special needs, two-thirds also reported that their charter school's curriculum and teaching was better than that at the school their child would otherwise attend.

The third-year report of the U.S. Department of Education charter school study reports that "in most states, the percentage of students with disabilities in charter schools was similar to the percentage of students with disabilities in all public schools in those states." And a 1999 report on special education commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education says, "In contrast to concern expressed by disability advocates that charter schools may exclude students with disabilities, students with disabilities are not greatly under-enrolled in charter schools. In fact, rather than excluding students with disabilities, many charter schools specifically targeted these students."

Admittedly, some charter schools do not adequately serve children with special needs today. Part of the reason may be stinginess, malfeasance or insensitivity, but mostly it is due to lack of experience, expertise or resources. That this situation needs fixing does not, however, mean that greater regulatory zeal is the proper remedy.

A better solution is to make sure before issuing a charter that the school has addressed this issue in a reasonable way, that it has the staff it needs to do what it says it will do and no one is denied admission because of disability. That does not mean every charter school must accommodate every need of every disabled child. Regular public schools don't do that, either; they are apt to send a child with particular disabilities to a school across town (sometimes a private school) that is better suited to that child's needs.

Preserving Democracy

Allegation No. 7: Traditional public schools are required for the preservation and cultivation of democracy. Independent charter schools balkanize American society, weaken the principal institution that knits us together and portend a rebirth of segregation.

Do charter schools invite divisiveness? Most charters, if oversubscribed, are required to use a lottery or other random method to admit students. But the nature of some schools is such that they are designed for specific children and consequently attract members of individual ethnic or affinity groups. For example, when a school's founders are Hispanic community activists, the surrounding community is almost entirely Hispanic and the school's mission stresses bilingual education, it should not be surprising that 95 percent of the applicants are Hispanic.

When does specialization become balkanization? Your opinion depends on whether you are more taken with schools that have internal coherence of program and community combined with homogeneous demographics or with schools that boast a rainbow of students but do not engage a particular community or feature a clearcut educational orientation. Which approach does students more good?

In reality, when it comes to race, charter schools as a group are at least as well integrated as regular public schools. The federal analysts who conducted the study of charter schools funded by the U.S. Department of Education concluded: "Our data contain no evidence that charter schools disproportionately serve white and economically advantaged students. …[C]harter schools generally mirror the state's racial composition" of students in all public schools.

While the "one best system" view of public education would have everyone pass through standardized institutions and similar experiences, a different vision of public education regards it as a decentralized array of self-governing, results-oriented schools run by all sorts of different providers. Finally, the chartering process contains some built-in safeguards against divisive schools. First is the requirement that schools admit anyone who applies (or, if oversubscribed, use random selection) and not discriminate on grounds of race, ethnicity, religion, etc. Another is the due diligence that responsible sponsors perform before issuing (or renewing) a charter. Recognizing that all public schools have a civic mission, sponsors can-and should-refuse to issue charters to schools that they believe will be divisive or discriminatory. By this reasoning, public money should not flow to schools that preach segregation, racial superiority or hatred, even if there is a market for such things.

Allegation No. 8: Charter schools invite profiteering from public education. Many people are out to make a quick buck, and charter schools allow them to stuff their pockets with taxpayer dollars while shortchanging kids.

Yes, charter schools can cause dollar signs to light up in people's eyes. Some charter heads pay themselves generously. Some contract with their own firms or their relatives to furnish instructional or management services.

But the profit motive runs in multiple directions. Some school districts acting as sponsors use the charter law to pad their budgets by chartering schools far across the state. This long-distance chartering brings revenues into districts that commandeer a share of the schools' per-pupil allotment-sometimes up to 10 percent, more often 2 or 3 percent.

The most controversial charter proposals involve profit-seeking firms wanting to operate the school itself-groups like Edison Schools, Advantage Schools, National Heritage Academies and Beacon Education Management. Critics of this approach call it privatization, but this is an incorrect assessment.

True privatization means selling or transferring a public asset to private owners who bear sole responsibility for its existence and are accountable to no one except their shareholders. In the case of charter schools, these for-profit education management organizations continue to be publicly accountable for running these schools and achieving the goals set out in their contracts. Their contract can be terminated for not fulfilling its terms.

In all these arrangements, the public's most important safeguard is the fact that nobody can profit for long from an unsuccessful school. The only way to make money from charter schools over time is for them to attract and retain customers by providing an effective education.

A Front for Vouchers

Allegation No. 9: Charter schools are a stalking horse for vouchers. The agenda behind the agenda is to accustom people to a partial education marketplace and then surprise them with the full Monty.

Though the enactment of charter legislation is often entangled with the politics of vouchers, it is also the case that some charter advocates support vouchers while others are opposed. And some voucher proponents favor charter schools, while others do not.

The charter idea is a centrist idea that transcends party and ideology. It reflects no single agenda. There are many discrete purposes embodied in charter laws: providing a better education to needy youngsters, developing innovative practices, running schools according to new education visions, operating more efficiently, injecting choice and competition into public education, making education more accountable and so on. Some would add vouchers to that list of hoped-for charter consequences. Others abhor the prospect.

Charters and vouchers both introduce customer choice and competition into education. But the differences between the two strategies are at least as great as the similarities. The central difference, of course, is that children armed with vouchers can attend private schools, including church-affiliated schools. By contrast, charter schools remain public schools, open to all who choose to attend, funded by taxpayers dollars and accountable to public authorities for their continued existence.

Allegation No. 10: Charter schools do not go far enough. There will never be enough of them. They are hard to replicate. They function more like a pressure-release valve for dissidents than as a fundamental structural change.

This charge often is voiced by critics on the right as well as by the public establishment. School officials want to see systemic reform to change the whole system for all children. Those on the political right are convinced charters do not produce the needed revolution.

The critics could be prescient. Charters could remain a marginal reform, either because the barriers to entry are so high or because they don't appeal to many families. Meanwhile, they run a considerable risk of being re-regulated into clones of conventional schools.

For now, we applaud the fact that charters aren't the only significant reform under way in U.S. education. With various forms of systemic reform flanking them on one side and all manner of school choice strategies on the other, the country will have ample opportunity to compare the effectiveness of charters with different approaches to education improvement.

Bruno Manno is senior program associate with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 701 St. Paul St., Baltimore, Md. 21202. E-mail: brunom@aecf.org. A former assistant secretary for policy and planning in the U.S. Department of Education, Manno is co-author of Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education.