Charter Schools: Yay or Nay?

Image by Adam Lapuník

As an educator, I have complicated feelings about charter schools. I am committed to a public school system that serves all of our children, and I do worry that charters siphon off students who might help lead classrooms if they stayed in public school. On the other hand, the inertia of our school system makes change very challenging to accomplish. Unlike parochial schools and other private schools, charter schools are public schools funded by state and federal governments; they’re free to attend and open to the public. Depending on the state they’re in and their particular charter, however, they do not share all the constraints of traditional public schools. Charter schools have a level of freedom that’s valuable.

It’s been 35 years since Albert Shanker, then president of the American Federation of Teachers, first suggested charter schools, and 31 years since the first charter school opened in St. Paul, Minnesota.(charterschoolcenter.ed.gov) Now over 7,000 charter schools in North America have more than 3 million students enrolled. (chalkbeat.org)

Chris Drew, PhD known as “The Helpful Professor,” identifies potential strengths of charter schools that are not as tied to state regulations, such as innovative and effective teaching, methods, a sense of community, and specialization in specific curricular areas. He warns, though, that charter schools vary by state, vary in quality, may have high teacher turnover rates, and often depend on fundraising. (helpfulprofessor.com)

According to Psyche Pascual of GreatSchools.org, charters are like public schools in that they administer the same state-mandated standardized tests; don’t charge tuition; can’t discriminate by race, sex, or disability in their enrollment; and are accountable to the city, state, county, or district that granted their charter. They can organize staff differently, however, and they may be run by a non-profit or a for-profit organization. They may have a founding educational philosophy like Waldorf or Montessori, but they may not. Nor are they always limited to hiring teachers with credentials. Many charters were founded by a group of committed parents or community members, and they often require parental involvement. (greatschools.org)

Current research suggests that charter schools are clearly gaining on public schools in terms of student achievement. In a recent landmark study, researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which studies charter schools, found that Black and Hispanic

charter school students advanced more than their counterparts in traditional public schools “by large margins” in math and reading. The study also found stronger “academic growth” among charter school students living in poverty and English-language learners, compared with similar students at traditional public schools. (usnews.com)

The Stanford 2023 report shows that, in the 15 years since their 2009 study, public school performance remained relatively flat, while students enrolled in charter schools showed large, positive growth. Over the 15 years between the studies, the reading growth of students in charter schools rose by 23 days of learning each year and student learning in math increased by 37 days of learning each year. (ncss3.stanford.edu)

The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research used multiple factors beyond test scores to evaluate Chicago charter high schools. Although their students had a higher turnover rate than those in public schools (which is typical of charter schools), they still outperformed their public equivalents. Charter students appear to benefit from certain advantages over public schools: a collegial sense of responsibility and trust, higher expectations for moving up a grade and for college attendance, and greater parental involvement. (chalkbeat.org)

The charter school population continues to grow as well. Since the pandemic, 1.5 million students have left public schools, while enrollment at public charter schools grew by more than 300,000 students between 2019-20 and 2022-23, a 9% increase.  The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools 2022 annual enrollment report identified multiple factors valued by parents: higher-quality instruction (54%), smaller school and class sizes (47%), and better safety (47%) than district schools. (the74million.org)

Research on return on investment is especially compelling. Researchers from the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform compared funding with performance data from the National Assessment of Education Progress and research findings from the CREDO Institute at Stanford University. They found significantly higher gains in charter schools compared to their public counterpoints: in reading, charters average 4.4 NAEP points higher per $1,000 spent than traditional public schools, making charter schools 41% more cost-effective in reading; in math, charters average 4.7 points higher per $1,000 funded, making them 43% more cost-effective in math. On average, each dollar invested in a student’s schooling in traditional public schools yields $3.94 in lifetime earnings. That same dollar invested in a charter school student yields $6.25 in lifetime earnings — a 58% higher return on investment over the course of a 13-year education. (bpb-us-e1.wpmucdn.com)

The varied success rates of charter schools mirror the varied success rates of public schools, so their biggest advantage may well be the choice that parents and students get. Research confirms however, that charter school students are gaining an advantage over their public school peers. As an educator, surely I should be convinced to support charters. I have a grandchild in San Francisco who will benefit from school choice. Does that make me squirm? A bit… I do wish that public schools could have some of the flexibility available to charter schools, which might allow them to see equally fine results. If and when that happens, I will remain an avid supporter of public schools. In the meantime, however, I acknowledge the advantage of choice for so many of our students.

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