For all the hype about a few standout schools, charter schools in general aren’t producing better results than traditional public schools. A national study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford found that while 17% of charter schools produced better results than neighborhood public schools, 37% were significantly worse, and the rest were no different. (Not that public schools are perfect, as many parents know. See our earlier story, “10 Things Your School District Won’t Tell You,” for more.)
A host of other studies on charter school outcomes have come up with sometimes contradictory results. As with traditional public schools, there are great charters – and some that aren’t so great. “There’s a lot of variation within charter schools,” points out Katrina Bulkley, an associate professor of education at Montclair State University who studies issues related to school governance. “In fairness to organizations that are running high-performing schools, many of them are very frustrated with the range of quality, because they feel that it taints charter schools as a whole,” Bulkley says.
2. Our teachers aren’t certified.
According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, charter-school teachers are, on average, younger and less likely to hold state certification than teachers in traditional public schools. In a 2000 survey, 92% of public school teachers held state certification, compared to 79% of charter school teachers. A 2008 survey found that 32% of charter school teachers were under 30, compared to 17% of traditional public school teachers. Charter schools often recruit from organizations like Teach for America that provide non-traditional paths into the profession, and more-experienced teachers who already have jobs in traditional public schools may have little incentive to give up the protection of tenure.
Relying on relatively untrained, inexperienced staff may have a real impact in the classroom. “A lot of them don’t have classroom management skills,” says May Taliaferrow, a charter-school parent.
3. Plus, they keep quitting.
As many as one in four charter school teachers leave every year, according to a 2007 study by Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University, and other researchers at the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. That’s about double the typical teacher turnover rate in traditional public schools. Charter schools typically pay teachers less than traditional public schools do, and require longer hours, Miron says. Meanwhile, charter school administrators earn more than their school-district counterparts, which can also make teachers feel underpaid, he says. The odds of a teacher leaving the profession altogether are 130% higher at charter schools than traditional public schools, according to a 2010 study by the National Center on School Choice at Vanderbilt University. That study also found that much of this teacher attrition was related to dissatisfaction with working conditions.
Higher turnover is inevitable with a younger staff – and the ability to get rid of ineffective teachers, says Peter Murphy, a spokesman for the New York Charter Schools Association. “There needs to be more turnover in district schools,” Murphy says. “Instead, what you have is this rigid tenure system where teachers are not held accountable, and children suffer.”
4. Students with disabilities need not apply.
Six-year-old Makala was throwing regular tantrums in school, so her mother, Latrina Miley, took her for a psychiatric evaluation, eventually ending up with a district-mandated plan that stated the girl should be taught in a smaller class where half the students have special needs. The charter school’s response, Miley says, was to tell her she could either change her daughter’s educational plan, or change schools. She moved Makala to a nearby public school – where, she says, teachers have been more effective at managing her daughter’s behavior issues. The school says it can’t talk about specific cases.
Critics say charter schools commonly “counsel out” children with disabilities. While a few charter schools are specifically designed to serve students with special needs, the rest tend to have lower proportions of students with special needs than nearby public schools, according to a review of multiple studies conducted by the University of Colorado’s Education and the Public Interest Center. Charter schools also appear to end up with students whose disabilities are less expensive to manage than those of public school students. A Boston study, conducted by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, found that 91% of students with disabilities in the city’s charter schools were able to be fully included in standard classrooms, compared to only 33% of students with disabilities in the traditional public schools.
5. Separation of church and state? We found a loophole.
Charter schools are public schools, supported by public tax dollars. But among the thousands of charters nationwide are schools run by Christian organizations as well as Hebrew and Arabic language academies that blur the line between church and state. “What would not be tolerated in a regular public school seems to be tolerated when it’s a charter school,” says Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University and the author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” Even if these schools aren’t explicitly teaching religion, “it’s potentially segregation by religious preference,” Bulkley says.
6. We don’t need to tell you where your tax dollars are going.
An investigation by Philadelphia’s City Controller earlier this year uncovered widespread financial mismanagement among the city’s charter schools, including undisclosed “related party” transactions where friends and family of school management were paid for various services, people listed as working full time at more than one school, individuals writing checks to themselves, and even a $30,000 bill from a beach resort charged to a school.
Financial scandals have come to light in schools around the country, but what’s more troubling, says advocate Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters in New York City, is that charter schools have opposed state audits of their finances. The New York Charter School Association won a lawsuit against the state comptroller last year, with the court ruling that the legislature had violated the state constitution when it directed the comptroller to audit charter schools. Charter schools in the state are already overseen and audited by at least two other agencies, Murphy says. “We have never objected to being audited, being overseen, and being held accountable. In fact, this organization has come out in favor of closing low-performing charter schools,” he says.
7. We’ll do anything to recruit more kids…
Walking around New York City, it’s impossible to miss the ads on buses and subways for the Harlem Success academies, Haimson says. The school is legally required to reach out to at-risk students, and it has been opening new schools over the past couple of years. However, some schools elsewhere have gone beyond marketing. A charter school in Colorado gave out gift cards to families that recruited new students, and another school in Louisiana gave out cash.
8. …but we’ll push them out if they don’t perform.
The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools have been criticized for high rates of student attrition, in part because it’s the struggling students who are more likely to leave schools mid-year – so if more students leave charters, that churn could boost a school’s scores. A KIPP study released in June found students leaving at rates comparable to the rate at which students leave traditional public schools – but, according to Miron, that study ignored the fact that KIPP schools don’t then fill empty slots with other weak, transient students the way traditional public schools do. “Traditional public schools have to take everybody,” Miron explains. “Charter schools can determine the number they want to take and when they want to take them, and then they can close the door.”
Miron found there was a 19% drop in enrollment in KIPP schools from grades 6 to 7, and a 24% drop from grades 7 to 8. Some charter schools lose 50% of a cohort each year, Miron says. And in some cases, students can be explicitly pushed out of a charter school for failing to meet the school’s academic or behavioral standards – an option that’s not available to a traditional public school.
9. Success can be bought.
Some of the most successful charter schools are also some of the wealthiest. Harlem Children’s Zone, for example, had over $193 million in net assets at the end of the 2008-2009 school year, according to its most recent IRS filing. The organization’s charter schools spend $12,443 per student in public money and an additional $3,482 that comes from private fundraising. That additional funding helps pay for 30% more time in class, according to Marty Lipp, spokesman for the organization.
It’s great to see schools that have the resources to spend lavishly to help children succeed, Bulkley says, but it’s difficult to see how those schools can then be models for traditional public schools largely constrained by traditional public budgets. “All schools should get what they need,” Lipp says, but adds, “You give two people $10 and they spend it different ways, so it’s not simply about money.”
10. Even great teachers can only do so much.
Much of the public debate over charter schools focuses on teacher performance and the ability to fire ineffective teachers – something that’s more difficult at a traditional public school where teachers are typically union members. While it’s true that teachers represent the most important in-school factor affecting student performance, out-of-school factors matter more, Ravitch says. “The single biggest predictor of student performance is family income,” she says. “I certainly wish it were not so, but it is.” Children from higher-income families get a huge head start thanks to better nutrition, a larger vocabulary spoken at home and other factors, she says. The narrative that blames teachers for problems that are rooted in poverty “is demoralizing teachers by the thousands,” Ravitch says. “And you don’t improve education by demoralizing the people who have to do the work every day.”