Why I'm Wary of Charter Schools

Financial harm, increasing racial segregation and church-state issues threaten the viability of public education by MARC F. BERNSTEIN

With its passage of the New York Charter Schools Act of 1998, New York last December became the 34th state to authorize or implement charter schools.

As a result, roughly two-thirds of the school districts nationwide now are subject to an educational reform that has yet to prove its worth but has raised the most serious practical and philosophical challenges to the viability of public education in our country's history.

In New York, a charter school can be established through an application submitted by teachers, parents, school administrators, community residents or any combination thereof. Though charter schools are subject to the same health and safety, civil rights and student assessment requirements of other public schools, they are exempt from all other state regulations.

The Case for Charters
The case for charter schools is quite simple--the arguments typically revolve around the alleged failure of the public schools. Though many have contested the validity of these charges (educational researchers Gerald Bracey and David Berliner prime among them), the news media, the political establishment and a large segment of the public have become convinced that our schools are failing to serve the children with whom they've been entrusted.

The 15-year diatribe, beginning with the Nation at Risk report in 1984, has been translated in recent years into legislative action enabling students to attend alternative charter schools paid for by the school districts that the students would have otherwise attended. Charter schools, by law, are free of most state mandates and are not obligated to conform to teacher union work rules and hours.

Charter school proponents contend the freedom from state regulations and collective bargaining constraints will yield significant advantages:


  • Charter schools will permit and encourage a more creative approach to teaching and learning;



  • Charter schools will establish models of educational reform for other schools in the same community;



  • Charter schools will be more reflective of parent and community priorities through the alternative programs that cater to special interests and needs;



  • Charter schools will operate in a more cost-effective manner; and



  • Charter schools will be governed by boards consisting of parents, teachers and community members, making them more responsive than public schools.


  • Unrealized Gains
    Not only have these benefits not accrued to most of the students attending existing charter schools, but charter school proponents neglect to address three overarching concerns regarding the potential consequences of this movement.

    First, the public money used to fund charter schools must come from an existing source and that source is the budget of the public school district.

    Second, charter school populations tend to be more homogeneous than most public schools in terms of ethnicity, religion or race. This homogeneity will have a Balkanizing effect when young children are most open to dealing with differences among people.

    Third, the constitutional separation between school and religion will be compromised by people of goodwill (and others) who see opportunities to provide alternate education to children in need.

    Before elaborating on these concerns, it is instructive to review the formal studies completed to date that have examined the progress of charter schools in fulfilling their stated goals. Charter school advocates, however, seem to show little or no interest in research data about charter schools.

    The Case Not Made
    In perhaps the most extensive study to date, "Beyond the Rhetoric of Charter School Reform: A Study of Ten California School Districts," researchers at UCLA, led by Professor Amy Stuart Wells, looked at 17 charter schools in 10 school districts. Their selection of districts were chosen for their diversity in order "to capture the range of experiences within this reform movement."

    Among its 15 findings, the study concluded that California's charter schools have not lived up to proponents' claims. Four of the findings are most telling:


  • California's charter schools, in most instances, are not yet being held accountable for enhanced academic achievement of their students;



  • Charter schools exercise considerable control over the type of students they serve;



  • The requirement that charter schools reflect the social/ethnic makeup of their districts has not been enforced;



  • No mechanisms are in place for charter schools and regular public schools to learn from each other.


    Moreover, the researchers found "no evidence that charter schools can do more with less" and that "regular public schools in districts with charter schools felt little to no pressure from the charter schools to change the way they do business." Thus, the UCLA study disputes in the strongest of terms that charter schools raise the academic achievement of their students in a more cost-effective manner and that nearby public schools will do a better job educating their children by adopting the innovations of the charter schools.

    In a yearlong study of Michigan's charter school initiative, researchers at Western Michigan University concluded that charter schools may not be living up to their promise of educational innovation and more effective use of public money. The report, which was presented to the pro-charter state board of education in February, characterized many charters as "cookie-cutter" schools run by for-profit companies and suggested that many administrators and charter school boards were ill-equipped to run a school.

    These two studies are clear in their findings, yet the charter movement grows. If the spread of charter schools did not auger the most dangerous consequences, we could ignore it as yet another failed experiment in American education. But the risks here are too great, not only to America's public schools, but to our very society.

    The gravest concerns fall into three categories: financial impact, Balkanization and religious intrusion.

  • Financial Harm
    The most direct and immediate impact upon the public schools relates to financing. Money to operate the charter schools comes from the public schools, whether the financing mechanism be that (1) the public school draws a check to the charter; (2) the state forwards a proportion of what the public would have received to the charter; or (3) the state's discretionary resources that could have been used to improve the public schools are budgeted for charter schools.

    Regardless of the process, public schools wind up with fewer dollars to improve the education of their students. Such reduced funding likely will lead to poorer academic results, which then will be used to strengthen the case that charter schools (or voucher programs) are the only recourse for failing public schools. Is this Orwellian in intent or merely ignorant in practice?

    In New York, where I've worked as a superintendent for 13 years, the public schools are required to pay the charter schools the average operating expenditure per pupil as computed for the most recent school year based on the number of students the charter school claims it will serve in the forthcoming school year. When public school leaders suggested that their schools would be denied a disproportionate amount of money, charter school proponents (and legislators) responded that the money is merely following the student. As such, the public school would have the same percentage of money as students.

    This simplistic argument totally ignores the economic concept of marginal cost. It costs less to educate the 24th student in the class than the initial 5, 10, 15 or 20. In my letter to the editor of The New York Times on this subject last January, I wrote: "This means that if 10 students in each grade were to transfer to a charter school from a 1,000-student public elementary school, the public school would lose approximately $500,000. No teacher, custodian or secretary salaries can be eliminated as a result of the reduction in the number of students. However, the public school would have $500,000 less available to educate its remaining students."

    Where is the public school to go to recoup this lost $500,000? There are but two choices--raise taxes or reduce programming. Either choice has serious consequences for public education. If we raise taxes, our taxpayers will be paying more to educate fewer students. They won't care to hear about the principle of marginal cost. They will see the public schools as inefficient and will scream for tax relief or increased accountability for the costly public schools. And, if we cut programming or classroom staffing, our parents will demand to know why we are shortchanging their children.

    Clearly, the cost of educating some students is greater than it is for others. Few would question that it costs more to meet the needs of a child with disabilities or one who enters public school without speaking English. Research shows it is the knowledgeable parents who do their homework in terms of investigating alternatives to the public school. Therefore, charter schools are more likely to have a sufficient pool of "less costly" applicants leaving the public school with the more costly students to educate.

    In addition to penalizing public schools by reducing operating funds, New York state will have fewer total dollars available for educating students.

    One provision of the new charter school law requires the state to establish a fund to provide charter schools with loans for furniture, equipment and facilities. The reservoir of available state money is only so large. It can only drain in so many directions. Thus, public schools that are now required to meet higher academic standards will be told that the state lacks the resources to assist.

    The only other source of revenue for the public schools is the local taxpayer. Of course, the alternative is to eliminate or cut back nonacademic offerings. Those programs most likely to be dropped or curtailed are those in art or music, the ones for which there is no bottom-line, quantitative assessment.

    Either choice results in a no-win situation. We can alienate our taxpayers or we can jeopardize the support of our parents.

    Moreover, citizens in this state have the opportunity to register their support or disagreement with a school district's educational program through their vote on the annual school budget. Inasmuch as the charter school's program is solely within the control of its board of directors, is there not a true gap between the public's right of the purse strings and the independence given to charter schools?

    A Balkanizing Effect
    Can separate be equal?

    This question, we thought, had been answered in 1954 by the U. S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education when racially segregated schools prevailed in parts of our country by the design of governmental entities.

    Nearly a half century later, we now have a government–endorsed policy leading us back to that same situation. Surprisingly, charter schools seem to enjoy strong support among minority legislators and advocates, the same groups that rallied behind the Supreme Court’s decision that "separate is not equal" in education.

    This reversal may reflect the disenchantment of minority parents with America's inner-city schools, which serve the greatest percentage of minority students. For example, a recent poll by the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies reported that blacks are 11 percent less likely than whites to be satisfied with their local public schools.

    Though charter school laws in most states attempt to address the matter of potential racial unbalancing, the charter schools nonetheless are becoming increasingly segregated. The Minnesota Charter Schools Evaluation, conducted in 1998 by the University of Minnesota, found that charter schools in that state typically enroll greater numbers of ethnic minorities than the regular schools in their home districts. Half of the charters have student populations that are more than 60 percent children of color.

    In Michigan, a statewide study of charters by Western Michigan University identified a segregation pattern in which white children were opting out of local public schools. The percentage of minorities in charters declined by more than 22 percent between 1995 and 1998.

    Two other detailed studies--one in North Carolina, the other in Arizona--concluded that their states' charter schools have become increasingly segregated by race. The North Carolina Office of Charter Schools found that 13 of 34 charter schools that opened in 1997 were disproportionately black, compared with their districts. And, the North Carolina Education Reform Foundation, which helps to start charter schools, says at least 9 of the 26 schools that opened last year violate the diversity clause.

    Having anticipated the possibility of segregation, North Carolina's charter school law included a diversity clause requiring charter schools to "reasonably reflect" the demographics of their school districts. Even so, the opposite has occurred.

    A study titled "Ethnic Segregation in Arizona Charter Schools," issued in January 1999 by Casey Cobb of University of New Hampshire and Gene Glass of Arizona State University, found that nearly half of the state's 215 charter schools (as of 1997) "exhibited evidence of substantial ethnic separation."

    These studies describe but one type of segregation--racial--while the term Balkanization connotes the formal division of a geographic area along racial, ethnic and/or religious lines. How unfortunate it would be for our nation's communities to become more fractionalized than they already are.

    The limited existing research points to this as a possible outcome as students' attendance is based upon factors other than the schools' academic performance, whether at the parents' choosing or the schools' selection.

    America's public schools have as one of their primary goals to acculturate, sensitize and civilize our children to prepare them for their future roles in a democratic society. Will this goal be seriously compromised due to charter schools? I believe it was René Descartes who wrote that the chief cause of human error is to be found in the prejudices picked up in childhood.

    Religious Intrusion
    Following our state's adoption of a charter school law, New York City religious leaders began enthusiastically preparing themselves to establish charter schools. They already had access to classroom space, an extremely rare commodity, and a significant presence in their communities, which could only help in attracting students. Plus, the religious leaders have been persistent critics of the city's schools.

    The most vocal of the clergy, the Rev. Floyd H. Flake of Queens, N.Y., a former U.S. congressman, argued for "skirt(ing) the constitutional barriers between church and state by offering religious instruction outside school hours."

    This creative thinking is not limited to New York City. Education Week reported in February that the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a pastor on Chicago's South Side, "has discussed shutting down St. Sabina (its parish school) and, in its place, opening a publicly funded charter school run by a nonprofit board, possibly with links to the parish or the Catholic archdiocese." Both Flake and Pfleger see charter schools as an opportunity to use public money to subsidize their educational and religious efforts.

    The U.S. Constitution speaks loudly and clearly against religious intrusion into the public schools. In spite of Supreme Court cases defining the nature of permissible involvements, the issue is never truly resolved. Litigation involving charter schools inevitably will require the court to rule on charter schools' use of church property, the participation of religious leaders on charter school governing boards and the attendance of charter school students at home and after school religious education programs when the church's facilities are used to house the charter school.

    The court's decisions will significantly affect public school finances and the influence religion will have upon children attending the nation's public schools, whether they are charter or regular public schools.

    Constant Monitoring
    Though charter schools have yet to prove their academic worth, they are rapidly increasing in number across the country. They provide choices to parents for their children's education and level the playing field between higher and lower socioeconomic classes. Charter schools lend a warm feeling that government is doing something to fix our failing schools by turning the capitalistic engine of competition loose upon the schools.

    In reality, charter schools are denying public schools the financial resources they require to address the needs of an increasingly disparate student population. Our communities will be further divided along racial, religious and ethnic lines as children attend their schools of choice, opting to be with children of similar backgrounds. And the never-ending battle to maintain the separation of church and state will suffer another setback as public money moves in the direction of religious (charter) schools, where children receive religious instruction under the guise of attending charter schools.

    As educational leaders committed to the values of public education, we must be wary of these unintended consequences. We must continually monitor charter schools' academic performance, use of public money for religious instruction and adherence to diversity provisions.

    Undoubtedly, many policymakers have prejudged the success of the charter schools movement. But we must assume the duty to inform the public about this most serious challenge to public education. As part of a professional leadership organization and as career educators, we must monitor the performance of charters in our communities and communicate our concerns to legislators.

    Marc Bernstein is superintendent of Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District, 1260 Meadowbrook Road, North Merrick, NY 11566. E-mail: mbernst@bellmore-merrick.k12.ny.us