Charter Schools: 25th Anniversary and More to Come (Part 1)

Charter schools are here to stay. Since 1991 when Minnesota became the first state to charter new schools free of most state education regulations, 43 states and the District of Columbia have now authorized 6400 charter schools run by non-profit and for-profit organizations. As of 2014 charters house nearly three million students or about six percent of the U.S. public school enrollment. These charters are public schools governed by separate boards of parents, teachers, entrepreneurs, etc. Charters receive state funds for each student enrolled equivalent to state funds for a regular public school next door. These new and largely autonomous organizations are accountable to their boards (not the  elected school board of the district in which they are located) to fulfill the aims stipulated in the charter they received.

From zero to six percent of total U.S. students in charter schools in 25 years doesn’t sound like a cat video going viral but in institutional terms it is a solid sign that charter schools have become part of daily scene in U.S. public schools and are here to stay. Released from most state regulations and  unionized teachers, charter schools have been expected to create innovative curriculum, instruction, and organization and compete with traditional public schools for students. From that innovation and competition, state legislators expected across-the-board improvement in all public schools.

Publicly-funded charter schools have found a special niche among urban districts. Two-thirds of charter school students are minority (across the country the percentage is half); 56 percent of all charters are located in cities; the rest are in rural and small town districts–many of which are poor with only a tiny percentage found in affluent suburbs (see here and here).

Currently, in New Orleans, Detroit, and the District of Columbia charter schools are a majority (or near majority) of their public schools from which parents choose (14 districts have at least 30 percent of their enrollment in charter schools).  As long as there are urban and suburban schools that fail their students (as measured by test scores, graduation rates, well-being of students, etc.), expanded parental choice that now includes magnet schools, alternative schools, districts with portfolios of options, and yes, charter schools will become as familiar as the morning Pledge of Allegiance in the nation’s classrooms.

Expanded parental choice through vouchers and charters (the former has existed since the 1970s but is largely absent from most school districts while the latter has slowly and steadily grown over the past quarter-century) has become one of the planks in a reform platform to bring innovation and improvement to what critics call a moribund and failed traditional system of schooling. Major foundations such as Walton, Gates, Broad, and the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund have contributed hundreds of millions to promote charter schools and organizations that manage clusters of schools–Charter Management Organizations or CMOs which are not-for-profit and Educational Management Organizations or EMOs that are for-profit (see here). Donors see charters as a way of ridding the nation but especially big city schools of an obsolete model of schooling that fails to prepare U.S. children and youth for either college or an ever-changing workplace. Foundation officials, many urban parent groups, and civic and business leaders support the expansion of charters. Opponents have been teacher unions, groups of parents railing at loss of funds for regular public schools, and other groups who see a lack of accountability to dump those charters who are fiscally and academically failing (here and here).

Warring research studies from camps promoting and opposing charters have unceasingly argued for the past quarter-century whether charters are academically outperforming traditional public schools. It has become a trivial question because there is so such diversity among charter schools.  Some charters (e.g., KIPP and Summit Schools) send nearly all graduates to college ; others are close to closing their doors or have been shut down ; some charters are for-profit such as cyber schools, and dozens of other models. Lumping them altogether  to answer a generic question: which form of public schools is better academically?—is not only goofy but unanswerable. What is clear, however, after 25 years is a lack of  systemic oversight and accountability of charters for poor fiscal and academic performance in various states (see here).

What is also clear is that the promised autonomy to become innovative and competitive with other public schools, the promise of the original mandate for charters, has yet to appear in charter schools and classrooms (see here and here).

These charter school wars will ease over time.  More CMOs will regulate their schools. More state charter laws will increase oversight of school performance. More state caps on the number of charters that can be authorized will disappear. Charters will become a familiar dot in the U.S. educational landscape. Part 2 explains why charters will stick as a reform.

 

 

9 Comments

Filed under school reform policies

9 responses to “Charter Schools: 25th Anniversary and More to Come (Part 1)

  1. This post misrepresents privately managed, corporate charters schools as “public schools”. This misrepresentation is ethically, morally, and most importantly, legally incorrect. As a Juris Doctor candidate whose specialty is education law in the era of neoliberalism, allow me to present the legal arguments on how privately managed charter schools are not at all “public.”

    Generally charter schools are not public schools. This has been long established by both existing case law and public policy. The Washington State Supreme Court (2015) held that charter schools are not “common schools” because they are governed by appointed rather than elected boards. The 9th Circuit US Court of Appeals (2010) ruled that charter schools are not “public actors.” The California Court of Appeals (2007) ruled that charter schools are not “public agents.” Additionally, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) joined scores of other government agencies in unequivocally determining that charters are, in NLRB’s words, “private entities.”

    By definition if a charter school is operated by a for-profit company, or by a 501c3 non-profit corporation (e.g. Harlem Success Academy), then it is not a public school. The United States Census Bureau frames this latter issue best:

    “A few “public charter schools” are run by public universities and municipalities. However, most charter schools are run by private nonprofit organizations and are therefore classified as private.” (US Census Bureau. (2011). “Public Education Finances: 2009 (GO9-ASPEF)”. Washington, DC: US Government Printing O ce. Print. vi).

    Because these lucrative charter schools are not public, and therefore not subject to even a modicum of public oversight, they are able violate the constitutional rights of their students. The decision in Scott B. v. Board of Trustees of Orange County High School of the Arts saw scholar Rosa K. Hirji, Esq. write for the American Bar Association:

    “The structures that allow charter schools to exist are marked by the absence of protections that are traditionally guaranteed by public education, protections that only become apparent and necessary when families and students begin to face a denial of what they were initially promised to be their right.” (http://apps.americanbar.org/litigation/committees/childrights/content/articles/winter2014-0114-charter-schools-upholding-student-rights.html)

    The distinguished Professor Preston C. Green III of University of Connecticut has written extensively on this subject. One of his recent papers examines “how charter schools have used their public characteristics to qualify for public funding under state constitutional law, while highlighting their private characteristics to exempt themselves from other laws that apply to public schools.” This private-in-every-aspect except for when siphoning funds away from authentic public schools is a defining feature of charter schools. (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2656537)

    • larrycuban

      I thank you, Robert, for offering in detail a legal argument that charter schools are not public. While I was familiar with the general outline of the charters-are-private entities, your citing of legal scholars widened my views on the legal issue. I appreciate your taking the time to do that.

      What I appreciated much less was your initial two sentences that by calling charters “public” schools I was also “ethically and morally” incorrect. Perhaps, legally incorrect from your point of view but you are confusing values and facts when you make the other two charges.

    • Shawgi Tell

      Robert, thousands of charter schools are private for-profit schools and thousands more are private non-profit schools. Are there any charter schools that do not fall into either category? If so, what is their legal classification?

  2. I hope that charter schools, such as they are privately managed today, are not here to stay. I have seen increased segregation of communities and public resources due to the privately managed charters in my hometown of Oklahoma City (read teacher Blogger John Thompson from my alma mater) and here in San Francisco. Imagine my surprise when I went to Gateway Middle School info night and was told that ELD and Special Ed students would receive no services. What a message, and demonstration of a determination to keep certain populations out. And, illegal. The NAACP called for a moratorium on charter schools last week, and I believe that this could be a turning point for how charter schools are perceived. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2016/08/07/naacp-members-call-for-ban-on-privately-managed-charter-schools/?postshare=6511470600407793&tid=ss_fb

  3. Andy Beach

    Oregon requires charter schools boards to report to local district boards. Have you studied this?

    Your Servant,

    Andrew Beach 503-320-4410 LinkedIn.com/in/brandingdynamo – sent from mobile phone –

    >

  4. Shawgi Tell

    Larry, the average person reading this post on the 25 year anniversary of charter schools might be excused for thinking charter schools are really not such a terrible educational arrangement. I wish you had taken a more critical view and shared with your readers the extensive havoc and destruction charter schools are wreaking in education and society. The evidence against charter schools is robust, large, and constantly growing.

    • larrycuban

      Charters continue to be controversial in urban districts in the U.S. While I describe both support and opposition to charters, I do not think that what you describe: “extensive havoc and destruction charter schools are wreaking in education and society” accurately captures what has occurred over the quarter-century. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s