Charter Schools: A Look at the Evidence

With the recent confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, media and the Internet have been flooded with a variety of reactions. Much of the ones I find myself privy to are critical of her lack of experience in public education, her commitment to charter schools, and what comes across as disregard for the existing public education system.1As we move forward with Secretary DeVos, it is important to have a better understanding of what the implications of her position are and how they may affect education in this country: namely, what should we know about charter schools and their impact on students both in charter schools and in public schools?

Charter Schools: A Brief History

The concept of a “charter school” was first introduced to the education world in 1974 by Ray Budde, who, at the time, was an assistant professor in the school of education at the University of Massachusetts.2 Amid the quiet circulation of his idea among educators and administrators, “A Nation at Risk” was published in in 1983. The report was a national account of the dire need for educational reform as determined by Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education.3 In response, Dr. Budde recirculated his 1974 article and expanded upon his original work, publishing Education by Charter: Restructuring School Districts in 1988.

Budde’s original idea focused on the importance of reorganizing school districts. Instead of having several levels of hierarchy (district, school board, superintendent, principal, teachers), Budde proposed greater autonomy for teachers in making curricular decisions. He described a bi-level system where groups of teachers were more involved in leading the school in curriculum development and execution. These autonomous bodies would receive guidelines directly from an ‘educational charter’ provided by the school board. Such a charter would outline, for example, the societal needs the school is catering to, dates for funding requests, and requirements for specific learning needs of students. Budde’s plan for monitoring and regulation was, firstly, to create a streamlined system for which school activities and progress can be monitored and evaluated. Secondly, he proposed that there be a committee consisting of: two teachers from the charter school, a principal from a different charter school, an independent expert on education at the age level in question who is not employed by the school system, and an education specialist.4

Over the next few years, Budde’s idea spread. While his intention was for restructuring to happen within existing schools, Al Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers at the time, suggested that autonomous teachers used educational charters to form new schools, using the school buildings that were already standing.5 As ideas integrated and gained popularity, the first chartering law was passed in Minnesota in 1991. By 2010, 40 states had chartering laws.6

“Education by Charter”: Then and Now

Ray Budde’s original ideas about charter schools came down to a few fundamental concepts:

  • Greater teacher autonomy in curriculum development and execution
  • Support for innovation in the context of this autonomy
  • Proportionate greater accountability for teachers.

These changes, in his view, could be instituted with restructuring and changes within the public school system.7 By the time Minnesota first introduced its first chartering law, these key fundamentals had been co-opted and changed.8

Today, a charter school looks like an educational institution completely separate from a public school, although often they might occupy different floors in the same building. Each state has its own set of individual charter laws that govern how a charter school is established and funded.

To summarize, charter schools attempt to marry the government funding of a public school with the autonomy of a private school. Charter schools are held accountable to specific requirements (in their founding charter); if these requirements, dictated by  are not met, the school can be closed.9

In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, 272 charter schools closed.10 In some states, such as California, charter schools are authorized to exist by the respective school district. In other states, such as Minnesota, charter schools can be authorized by any institution of higher education and the school is less integrated into the regular school district.11 As public education continues to get criticized for its inability to support students in this country, there have been many proponents of switching to a system that completely relies on charter schools. Dr. Budde, up until his death in 2005, heavily opposed the idea of replacing the public education system with a system of charter schools.12

Supporting Arguments for Charter Schools:

  • Perceptions of Public School Education

As noted in national reports in the 80s, public education across the country has varying success. While some public schools have excellent outcomes in terms of graduation rates and test scores, other public schools are barely achieving standards and graduating students without basic math and reading skills. The repeated struggle of certain public schools to support their students is a leading argument for proponents of charter schools. In 2013, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that across 27 charter schools that were studied, about a quarter of students in the charter schools outperformed those in local public schools, with some evidence showing that students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds (English Language Learners, minorities, students from families in poverty) benefited the more than their more privileged counterparts.13

  • Choice in Education: A Free Market Concept

As consumers in this country, we can choose which products to purchase and manufacturers compete with each other for business by adjusting prices and product quality. Advocates of charter schools argue that choice in education pushes schools to compete with each other in a way that drives improvement in education, pushing education into the free market. Based on the available evidence, it is unclear whether or not this theoretical concept plays out in reality.

  • Innovation in Education

Because of lesser regulation and curricular constraints, charter schools are often able to include innovative teaching strategies and approaches in their lessons or built into school goals. For example, in Minneapolis, Hmong International Academy is a charter school where classes are taught entirely in Hmong, which serves a large cohort of Hmong immigrant children who would otherwise be unable to get a quality education.14 Public schools, because of limitations in budget and constraints in curriculums, would likely be unable to provide this kind of tailored education.

Arguments against Charter Schools:

  • Reliance on Private Funding: Regulation and Oversight

Because charter schools often make up their budget deficits and limitations with funding from private entities, they are outside the regulatory confines of the school district. This creates a situation where charter schools are able to get around certain restrictions. For example, while laws usually require teachers to be licensed, charter schools are often able to employ unlicensed teachers and get around some of the bureaucratic processes of public education.15

  • Choice in Education: Race and Perpetuation of Segregation

One of the arguments against choice in education is that it perpetuates racial segregation. There is an aspect of “white flight,” where wealthy white families with abundant resources remove their children from public schools and send them to charter schools, de-integrating school districts.16 Alternatively, some charter schools target children of color, in part because of a possible “savior complex” but also in part to uphold the idea that a charter school should be bringing something innovative and new to education, particularly to those who are left behind by the public education system.17 Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones recently spoke on NPR’s Fresh Air, describing to Terry Gross, “It is important to understand that the inequality we see, school segregation, is both structural, it is systemic, but it’s also upheld by individual choice. As long as individual parents continue to make choices that only benefit their own children…we’re not going to see a change.” Her key argument is that individuals will almost always choose their school in a way that maintains racial segregation and consequently, there continues to be an extreme divide between schools’ access to resources. If families had no choice but to send their children to the local public school, there is an investment in the success of that school. Families with resources can donate resources and time to the public school, which in turn also benefits children who come from families with fewer resources and helps to integrate public education.18

  • Special Needs Children

Public schools are mandated by law to accept all students in their district, regardless of their disabilities, as well as fulfill their educational and physical needs. Special needs students often have physical restrictions or health complications that result in frequent absences, usually outside the children’s control. Public schools are required to accommodate these students and maintain their enrollment. Charter schools, while they are required by law to accept special needs students, are able to un-enroll special needs students based on their absences or inability to meet school requirements because of their autonomous charters. Hence, public schools have a disproportionate population of special needs children, a population who cannot be adequately supported with the limited resources in the public education system.19

  • Lack of Improvement in Outcomes

While both public education and charter education have high performing and low performing schools, the overall positive impact on student achievement and scores is questionable. An investigation into a group of charter schools in Michigan has demonstrated that charter schools have not improved academic achievement and in some cases, achievement in charter schools has been poorer.20

What Lies Ahead: Implications and Future Questions

This analysis of charter schools has brought us to this current moment in time, where a new administration is faced with the challenge of improving education in this country. While it is often simplified as a split between liberal advocates for public education and conservative proponents of charter schools, the state of education is significantly more complicated. Emily Loh, an elementary school teacher who works at a charter school in Minneapolis, Minnesota, lends her voice to this analysis with her experience in the Minneapolis school system. Ms. Loh, a product of public education, paints a more complex picture, where individual choice, race, and societies intrinsic inequities are impossible to unravel.

“If we can create an ideal society, charter schools should not exist because every child deserves to have a quality education that is fair and meets their needs and they should find that in public education,” she states. However, as universal quality education has not yet been achieved and charter schools do exist, Ms. Loh brings up the point that in a system where choice is introduced into education, children from under-resourced, marginalized families should have as much access to choice as children from wealthy families. However, with the current system, children without resources are often left out of participation in this choice.

In October of 2016, the NAACP released a statement that calls for a moratorium on the expansion of the charter school system until adequate transparency is established, among other tenets.21 There are a wide range of opinions about charter schools and mixed evidence about whether or not they have made substantive strides in education. What is clear is that quality education for the children of this country is too complex of an issue to leave for any one person without adequate experience to manage. The question of how best to educate students requires a team composed of diverse, progressive thinkers who have insight into how successful school systems are built: namely, teachers.

Ms. Loh closes our discussion of charter schools and education in this country with a poignant reminder, “Education systems are a reflection of the societies from which they come. Our society tends to institute systems that are unfair. That’s not a problem that education alone can fix.”

  1. Alcindor, Y. (2017, February 19). Rough First Week Gives Betsy DeVos a Glimpse of the Fight Ahead. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/19/us/politics/betsy-devos-education.html?_r=0.
  2. Origins of Chartering Timeline. (2010). Retrieved from https://www.educationevolving.org/content/history-and-origins-of-chartering
  3. National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A Nation at Risk. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/risk.html
  4. Budde, R. (1988). Education by Charter: Restructuring School Districts. The Regional Laboratory for Educational Improvement.
  5. Kolderie, T. (2005). Ray Budde and the origins of the “Charter Concept” (Education Evolving). Center for Policy Studies. Retrieved from https://www.educationevolving.org/pdf/Ray-Budde-Origins-Of-Chartering.pdf
  6. Origins of Chartering Timeline. (2010). Retrieved from https://www.educationevolving.org/content/history-and-origins-of-chartering
  7. Budde, R. (1988). Education by Charter: Restructuring School Districts. The Regional Laboratory for Educational Improvement.
  8. Origins of Chartering Timeline. (2010). Retrieved from https://www.educationevolving.org/content/history-and-origins-of-chartering
  9. Green, P., Baker, B., & Oluwole, J. (2013). Having it Both Ways: How Charter Schools Try to Obtain the Funding of Public Schools and the Autonomy of Private Schools. Emory Law Journal, 63(2), 303–337.
  10. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (2016). Statement Regarding the NAACP’s Resolution on a Moratorium on Charter Schools (Press Release). Retrieved from http://www.naacp.org/latest/statement-regarding-naacps-resolution-moratorium-charter-schools/
  11. Loh, E. (2017, February 10). Charter Schools: Teacher Perspectives.
  12. Saulny, S. (2005, June 21). Ray Budde, 82, First to Propose Charter Schools, Dies. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/21/us/ray-budde-82-first-to-propose-charter-schools-dies.html?_r=1
  13. Center for Research on Education Outcomes. (2009). Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States. Stanford University.
  14. Loh, E. (2017, February 10). Charter Schools: Teacher Perspectives.
  15. Green, P., Baker, B., & Oluwole, J. (2013). Having it Both Ways: How Charter Schools Try to Obtain the Funding of Public Schools and the Autonomy of Private Schools. Emory Law Journal, 63(2), 303–337.
  16. Norman, A. (2015, October 15). Why White Parents Won’t Choose Black Schools [The Huffington Post]. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/abby-norman2/why-white-parents-wont-ch_b_8294908.html.
  17. Loh, E. (2017, February 10). Charter Schools: Teacher Perspectives.
  18. Gross, T. (n.d.). How the Systemic Segregation of Schools is Maintained by “Individual Choices.” Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/01/16/509325266/how-the-systemic-segregation-of-schools-is-maintained-by-individual-choices
  19. Sugarman, S. (2002). Charter School Funding Issues. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10(34).
  20. Bettinger, E. (2005). The effect of charter schools on charter students and public schools. Economics of Education Review, 24, 133–147.
  21. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (2016). Statement Regarding the NAACP’s Resolution on a Moratorium on Charter Schools (Press Release). Retrieved from http://www.naacp.org/latest/statement-regarding-naacps-resolution-moratorium-charter-schools/