Charters 101

Photo by Zen Chung on

Charter schools are perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of education in the United States. It isn’t surprising. Charter schools are public schools that act like private schools. They are operated by independent organizations which may be but are not necessarily for-profit. The original idea behind charters was to reduce some of the trappings of traditional school to improve student outcomes. Charter schools were meant to be labs that whose best practices would be implemented in public schools. At some point the lab idea was abandoned, and a parallel school system developed. Charter schools receive public funds and are provided facilities. Often charter schools find additional funding support from foundations or private donors. The Walton Foundation, Gates Foundation, and Joyce Foundation are just a few of the big funders of charter schools.

Unlike public schools charter schools can have admissions requirements. Legally, charter schools have to admit all applicants. Yet, the data suggests that they do not serve students equally across the board. In 2018 an analysis of federal data found that “in Charter Schools found that students with disabilities make up about 10.6 percent of all charter school students, compared to about 12.5 percent in traditional public schools.” Charter schools have been shown to “counsel out” students with disabilities. (Yes, they do cherry pick as Kevin Welner details in his article here). Public schools take and educate all that they serve. Legally, charter schools cannot choose who they keep and yet, research shows that charter schools expel students at a rate higher than in public schools. At Success Academy, a national charter chain, students were expelled at 72 times the rate of expulsions in public schools. Additionally, in 2016 1 in 5 California charter schools were shown to have exclusionary admissions requirements.

The most common argument in favor of charter schools is that they outperform traditional public schools. It depends who you ask. There are successful charter schools. There are unsuccessful charter schools. The National Center for Educational Statistics(2019) found that performance on the NAEP exam was roughly the same for students who attended charter schools as traditional public schools. Test scores are only one piece of the puzzle, but the most important question isn’t about comparing charter and traditional schools.

Comic by @RobTornoe

The most important question is “What is the impact on the educational community of charter schools?” Charter schools suck away valuable resources from traditional public schools. Let me explain:

Traditionally, students attend their local public school. When a charter school forms, students may come from anywhere in the district. Let’s imagine just the third grade class of that charter school.

In the scenario above, Addison had 8 students, Blake had 6 students, and Cuesta had 5 students move to the Charter Academy (our charter school in this scenario). According to the OECD, the United States spends $12,612 on average per student. The public schools lose money for each student who leaves; that’s $100,896 for Addison, $75,672 for Blake, and $63,060 for Cuesta. Yet, none of these schools can reduce their teaching staff despite the reduction in budget. So, now they have less money to do the same work as before. When charter schools take resources, it effects the entire community. One important way to improve education would be to stop diverting funds from public schools. We can’t change education if we don’t universally invest in it.

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