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One pattern of failure in education reform is that political leadership and the public focus attention and resources on solutions while rarely asking what problems we are addressing or how those solutions address identified problems. The current and possibly increasing advocacy of charter schools is a perfect example of that flawed approach to improving our schools across the U.S.

Let’s start with two clarifications.

First, the overwhelming problems contributing to school quality are pockets of poverty across the country and school policies and practices mirroring and increasing social inequities for children once they enter many schools.

Children who live under the weight of poverty attend buildings in disrepair, sit in classrooms with inexperienced and un-/under-qualified teachers, and suffer through endless scripted instruction designed to raise their test scores. Citizens of a democracy share the responsibility for eradicating both the out-of-school and in-school failures often reflected in data associated with our public schools.

Then, what is a charter school and should any state increase resources allocated to charter schools, and in effect, away from public schools?

Starting with Problems, not Solutions

Charter schools are most often portrayed as public schools that function under agreements, charters, that allow those schools to function in some ways without the constraints placed on public schools.

Here, we must acknowledge that if charter schools are a viable solution to the serious problems I have identified above, a much more direct approach would be simply to allow all public schools to function without the restraints we know to be impacting negatively their ability to produce strong educational outcomes.

If innovation and autonomy are valuable for educational reform, then all public schools deserve those opportunities.

Powerful evidence that committing to charter schools is inefficient rests in the research that shows charter schools, private schools, and public schools have essentially the same academic outcomes when the populations of students served are held constant.

In his ongoing analysis of educational research, Matthew DiCarlo explains:

“[T]here is a fairly well-developed body of evidence showing that charter and regular public schools vary widely in their impacts on achievement growth. This research finds that, on the whole, there is usually not much of a difference between them, and when there are differences, they tend to be very modest. In other words, there is nothing about ‘charterness’ that leads to strong results.”
In other words, when schools succeed—which many public, private, and charter schools do—the success appears to have little to do with the type of school. The practices in any of these models can be replicated in any of the other models, but even then, scaling up or replicating what works in Public School A may not come to fruition in Charter School B.

The evidence, then, suggests that all states should avoid investing time and allocating tax dollars to charter schools, particularly when those commitments detract from addressing known problems in our public schools.

But there are additional red flags that should be considered about the charter school movement, cautions that are even more alarming:

• While charter schools across the U.S. are serving high-poverty and minority populations, charter schools tend to under-serve English language learners and students with special needs—two of the most challenging populations facing public schools. If our experiments with charter schools include ignoring populations at the heart of public school challenges, then the experiments are a failure from the start.

The charter school movement is re-segregating public schools. This is the most disturbing fact of the charter school movement. Children of color and children living in poverty are disproportionately being isolated in charter schools that are without racial or socioeconomic diversity.

• Since charter schools create some degree of open enrollment, they create transient populations of students, thus producing data that are less valuable for mining policies and practices to address the problems facing neighborhood public schools.

• Charter schools have the power to manipulate the population of students served only because public schools must serve the students once they leave those charter schools. Public schools never have, and shouldn’t have, the power to reject students beyond expulsion.

Many states appear committed, then, to contradictory policies: Increasing charter schools and thus their autonomy while decreasing public school autonomy within an accountability system that prescribes curriculum and expands the testing regime.

Charter schools in theory represent a belief in innovation, experimentation, and school autonomy. If these qualities are valuable and if they can address the out-of-school and in-school causes of educational outcomes, then we simply need to allocate funding and policies to insure that our public schools are afforded the same, while also admitting that we have no evidence that a school type—pubic, charter, or private—insures the outcomes we seek.

Recommended Resources

Baker, B.D. & Ferris, R. (2011). Adding up the spending: Fiscal disparities and philanthropy among New York City charter schools. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from

One contradiction of charter school advocacy is the claim that funding doesn't matter or is excessive at the public school level, but that many charter schools benefit from private donations or funding in addition to accepting tax dollars for running those charter schools. This study raises cautions about the wide variety of funding found in New York city charter schools. The authors warn about making careless comparisons and assuming that any charter schools are scalable as reform templates for public education reform.
Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). (2009, June). Multiple choice: Charter school performance in 16 states. Stanford, CA: Center for Research on Education Outcomes. Retrieved from
This comprehensive study of charter schools, though not without controversy, presents a solid picture of the range of quality found in any education format. Charter schools appear to have about 17% high achieving, 46% average, and 37% low achieving characteristics when compared to public schools. This data help place in context claims of “high flying” charter schools as all or even most charter schools, but the study does not address key issues such as the ideology and practices of those schools.
Frankenberg, E., Siegel-Hawley, G., & Wang, J. (2011) Choice without equity: Charter school segregation. Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 19(1). Retrieved from
We often fail to recognize the negative consequences of choice, but the charter school movement is exposing those consequences. This study concludes that charter schools "currently isolate students by race and class" and that charter schools may tend to under-serve English language learners and the extreme low end of poverty.
Fuller, E. (2011, April 25). Characteristics of students enrolling in high-performing charter high schools. A "Fuller" Look at Education Issues [blog]. Retrieved from
The choice dynamic of charter schools necessarily creates a student population unlike the community-based traditional public schools. In order to understand if and how charter schools in fact provide some evidence for reforming public schools, the populations of charters schools must be fully examined and understood. Fuller begins to examine the characteristics of students in charter schools labelled "high-performing" and identifies many disparities including special education students served, achievement characteristics among high-poverty students in both charter and public schools, and at-risk students, concluding:

"This suggests that HP charter high schools do not serve the same types of students as the regular neighborhood schools. Now, granted, the HP charter high schools do enroll a greater percentage of students participating in the free- and reduced-price lunch program and in the free lunch program, but these economically disadvantaged students are not the same as the economically disadvantaged students in the regular neighborhood schools!"

Garcia, D. (2011). Review of “Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector’s Best.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from
Garcia debunks think tank advocacy for expanding rapidly charter schools. This review is important for remaining skeptical about charter schools and for continuing to be vigilant about distinguishing between advocacy dressed as research and credible conclusions drawn from scholarship and research.
Miron, G. (2011). Review of “Charter Schools: A Report on Rethinking the Federal Role in Education.” Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from
Miron presents a mixed view of a report from the Brown Center on Education Policy of the Brookings Institution. The Brown Center report represents a growing endorsement of a federal role in promoting the expansion of charter schools. Miron argues for a tempered position on expanding charter schools and for using this report as just one initial piece of evidence in forming policy.
Miron, G. & Urschel, J.L. (2010). Equal or fair? A study of revenues and expenditure in American charter schools. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from
Funding and how funding is distributed lie at the center of much of the charter school and public school reform debates. This study details the complexity of how charter schools are funding and how that compares to public school funding. Key in this study is a call for more research on charter funding along with greater and fuller disclosure of charter funding, since charter schools tend to receive less per-pupil funding that public school but additional private funding that is not disclosed. As well, public schools remain likely to offer services that charters do not provide, distorting further any comparisons of funding equity.
Miron, G., Urschel, J. L., Mathis, W, J., & Tornquist, E. (2010). Schools without Diversity: Education management organizations, charter schools and the demographic stratification of the American school system. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved from
This study draws a disturbing pattern being uncovered about the charter school movement: "The analysis found that, as compared with the public school district in which the charter school resided, the charter schools were substantially more segregated by race, wealth, disabling condition, and language."
Miron, G., Urschel, J. L., & Saxton, N. (2011, March). What makes KIPP work?: A study of student characteristics, attrition, and school finance. Teachers College, Columbia University. National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education. Retrieved from
Focusing on inputs instead of student outcomes, this study examines KIPP schools and finds that KIPP schools do enroll high-poverty student but under-serve special needs students and English language learners. The study also raises questions about student attrition and about the apparent inequity in funding that KIPP schools receive when all funding is examined, totaling about $6500 more per pupil than public schools in the area. Combined, this evidence challenges the KIPP model as scalable.
Ravtich, D. (2010, November 11). The myth of charter schools. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved from
Ravitch's scholarly commentary is important because of her credibility as a scholar and historian along with her recent shift in positions concerning accountability/testing and school choice. This detailed discussion confronts the media-driven claims of "miracle" charter schools.

Originally posted to plthomasEdD on Fri Mar 16, 2012 at 09:08 AM PDT.

Also republished by Education Alternatives.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks, helpful and insightful (5+ / 0-)

    I want to go back and read this more thoroughly later.  I'm a parent in public school system that sees more solid families leaving for private every year, and have sympathy for the reasons to some extent.  This is hard stuff.

    I very much agree with the first point you made about needing to identify the problem.  Frankly, I think the problem is bigger than just pockets of poverty, though related to it. I think there is a hopelessness/sense of pointlessness about whether education will lead to jobs, about whether there are jobs, about the future . . .

    •  Absolutely right (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      semioticjim, mygreekamphora

      There is more to it than just socio-economics, although that does play a large part. Schools, and the neighborhoods they draw from, also have a culture which can support or fail to support the goals of education for all students.

      Gather enough students whose families give them hope for the future, and the school culture will support stretching to reach academic goals. If too many students come from families that see no point in education, the school culture will be one of marking time until students can leave school to try to participate in the economy.

      Fullerlook puts it succinctly:

      these economically disadvantaged students are not the same as the economically disadvantaged students in the regular neighborhood schools!
      Reform, if it is to be successful in terms of educational outcomes, must be on a case by case basis. One size fits all is doomed to fail the majority of the cases, regardless of the model chosen. Of course, if the goal is to privatize educational tax dollars, then any model will do if it leads to more charters run by private industry.

      "The problems of incompetent, corrupt, corporatist government are incompetence, corruption and corporatism, not government." Jerome a Paris

      by Orinoco on Fri Mar 16, 2012 at 12:57:55 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Nice, and thanks, but it will not make a differenc (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    grimjc, quill, Orinoco, semioticjim

    to legislators and policy makers who are under the spell of school reformers.  In Indiana, the evidence mirrors your information, charters are not doing better than the public school from which the students came.  By law, charters have to serve low income students first.  By design, they claimed they could do it for less money.  They claimed they would produce higher achievement with less money, less admin overhead, and less regulation while being more innovative.  Studies have found them to be no more innovative than public schools, the major difference is that they are not unionized--after a struggle in Indiana, they were required to hire licensed teachers.  Can public schools meet on Saturdays, have longer school days, have uniforms etc--yes they can.  Charters have to have an open enrollment process, even a lottery if enough applicants apply--but once accepted they do not have to keep the student--public schools do.  And most Indiana charters have little to no special education students.  

    Charters seem to have higher, or at least the same, admin costs than the public school, and this is money that could have been spent on student instruction back in the public school.  Charters also lack full instructional programs in music, art, sports, etc.  And now, despite heavily subsidized tuition support from donations, they are clamoring after more public funding.  

    And of course now we have vouchers, for even moderately well to do families.  What we are seeing is a transfer of public tax money from public schools to private and parochial schools while lessening the public hold on the money.  Charters now have their own state school board and are created by the Mayor of Indy and Ball State University (others that could sponsor have not done so).  We have not seen very many wanna be charter operators turned down, so the demand is not above the supply.  And we do not get the promised research from our mind trust/tfa/mrhea funded reform group.  Pretty entwined our local group is.  :)  
    Remember, school reform is not data driven, just celebrity and money driven.  

  •  Educational discrimination is a problem (4+ / 0-)

    Currently school district expenditures are based on community wealth.    The rich get richer (more educated) and the poor get poorer in every way.    Poverty is the problem that keeps the educational ball from bouncing higher for most.   Poverty affects nutrition & thus brain power, poverty prevents education., poverty often means that your parents can't do the best job for you either due to lack of time: working  16 hrs/day, or lack of parenting resources from cultural degradation.

    Charter schools would only exacerbate this inequality of educational resources in my estimation.  

    The tendency to isolate the poor and poorly educated into one area (ghettoization?)  is a big factor in the continuation of same.    


    If we pooled school funding state wide or nationally and supported schools according to their need rather than their ability to fund.  


    Break up the ghettos?   Maybe we could plan for low income housing, not in high rise tenements,  but in the house next door.   Stop the ghetto trend.  


    Massive, well funded, head start and educational drives in the poorest areas.  Combined with good food, after school programs, trade schools, music, theater etc.    


    Does the Kahn academy approach work?  


    In the end we need to get rid of the greed of capitalism that is destroying our earth and nations and replace it with some hybrid of socialism.    Working models?  iceland?

    "I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong." Richard Feynman

    by leema on Fri Mar 16, 2012 at 09:43:04 AM PDT

    •  Khan Academy works (0+ / 0-)

      for mathematics. Khan Academy economics is unfortunately of the former hedge fund manager variety. Caveat Emptor.

      "The problems of incompetent, corrupt, corporatist government are incompetence, corruption and corporatism, not government." Jerome a Paris

      by Orinoco on Fri Mar 16, 2012 at 01:00:56 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  The exact same amount of money should be spent on (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    plthomasEdD, Orinoco, semioticjim

    every single child in the public school system in America. The fact that we let public school funding be done through things like property taxes worsens inequity and harms society. A child born in poverty is worth just as much as a wealthy child.

    Let's go back to E Pluribus Unum

    by hazzcon on Fri Mar 16, 2012 at 10:51:29 AM PDT

  •  Why it is a problem (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    plthomasEdD, Orinoco, semioticjim

    My local charter high school's raison d'etre is "International Baccalaureate for all". This curriculum leaves many students out right at the start.  If a student can't succeed there that student comes right back to the regular public school.
    Charters were sold as "laboratory schools", where innovative methods could be tried, and, if successful, those methods could be used in public schools.
    The reality of my local charter school is "I want a private school experience for my kid at the public expense".
    Reality is a terrible roadblock to the reform movement. Money is the real motivating factor.
    My reality after 35 years of teaching high school math and science is: Two weeks ago I patted myself on the back when one of my former students got a big grant to continue her research (she is an asst. prof at Harvard).
    This week another former student made the news as part of a drug-related shooting.

    Guess which one of these got more attention (and fatherly advice) in my class?

    I try not to take too much credit or blame in these matters. I just worked as hard as I could with the kids they sent me.

  •  PL... I think you are speaking too a solution... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    plthomasEdD, semioticjim, Nance

    worth pursuing...

    Charter schools in theory represent a belief in innovation, experimentation, and school autonomy. If these qualities are valuable and if they can address the out-of-school and in-school causes of educational outcomes, then we simply need to allocate funding and policies to insure that our public schools are afforded the same, while also admitting that we have no evidence that a school type—pubic, charter, or private—insures the outcomes we seek.
    Our public school system suffers from centralization, with resulting standardization and subsequent regimentation of the otherwise natural learning process.  Particularly in big cities like Los Angeles, we have huge ossified moribund school districts beset by vested interests (political and business) that have a stake in business as usual and resisting any real change beyond perpetual inside-the-box reform.

    Let's decentralize the system and empower every school to use their collective local wisdom to solve the particular unique problems of their school in their community.  Give them access to the taxpayers money with far fewer mandates, standards and directive manipulation from above.

    I guess in essence make all schools charters and force them to collect the wisdom of students, teachers, parents and their local community to make their own unique agreement with the funding authority (generally the state) on how to proceed with offering their educational venue to their local community.

    I think the Green Dot charters in Los Angeles are a good example...

    Cooper Zale Los Angeles

    by leftyparent on Fri Mar 16, 2012 at 12:08:43 PM PDT

  •  Question (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    "Powerful evidence that committing to charter schools is inefficient rests in the research that shows charter schools, private schools, and public schools have essentially the same academic outcomes when the populations of students served are held constant."

    Is this suggesting that the money for charters and other public schools should all go back into one pot and THEN there would be some improvement in "academic outcomes?"

    •  I think not (0+ / 0-)

      The research shows that type of schooling isn't what most directly impacts educational outcomes, but that out-of-school factors (most powerful) and practices within any type of school do impact outcomes.

      Fully fund public schools and then give all public schools we appear willing to give only to charter schools. Then IF we address some social inequity, then we may see educational progress.

      •  So make them all (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        plthomasEdD, angelajean

        public charter schools.

        More money, more flexibility -- all those things you see that are happening in well-run charters, not corporate test mills, and more community outreach.

        Then the fight is about proper funding levels and providing a custom-fit education for all students instead of one type of public school fighting against another type of public school.


  •  This ploy to test all kids is poisonous.... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Nance, slatsg

    From the standpoint of learning, high stakes test prep warps the classroom experience and turns bright young learners with natural curiosities into disengaged minds....

    When nearly 70% of 350,000 students reveal they are disengaged with traditional, didactic test prep learning would think that policy makers would want to learn more from the children.

    What do American children think about the kinds of learning experiences afforded them?

    Where are their voices in this discussion?

    The education de-formers are turning our schools into educational dead-zones...

    Educational experience based on behaviorism is mind control.

    by semioticjim on Fri Mar 16, 2012 at 06:37:18 PM PDT

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