Debate over charters must consider access to good schools for underserved families

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Parents and kids lobby for charter schools in this Oct. 19, 2018, file photo.

The nation’s first charter school opened in 1992 and there are now more than 7,000 across 43 states and Washington, D.C. Listening to the political debate about charter schools, though, you’d think they are a new idea — or at least one with little grounding in research or practice.

In fact, thanks to a lot of research we know quite a bit about charter schools and charter policy, as well as the complicated issues these publicly-funded but independently-run schools raise. That gets lost in the toxic debate over these schools all year long — perhaps especially this past week, during School Choice Week — and during a political season.  

Commentary on charter schools generally underestimates the support for them. Although support has declined during Donald Trump’s presidency, public opinion data show that more Americans support charter schools than oppose them. A poll of 3,000 adults by Education Next shows 48 percent support charter schools and 39 percent oppose them. A poll of 1,000 voters by Democrats in Education Reform found 50 percent had a favorable view of them, and just 28 percent have an unfavorable one. Charter schools enjoy particularly strong support from Republicans, blacks and Hispanics.  

Why has that support not translated into more favorable politics for charter schools? Blame special-interest politics. Many Americans also support political change on climate, guns and health care. Organized groups oppose many of those changes and, in our political system, organized interests generally wield more power than diffuse interests. At the national level this is particularly true for education where single-issue voters are rare. When it comes to charters, the education industry fights efforts at odds with its self-interest just like any other industry. And, by allowing parents to choose a school for their children, and entities besides school districts to open and operate schools, charter schools mean a significant shift to the power arrangements in education.  

Like all public policy issues, charter schools are not without costs and tradeoffs. We’ve learned a lot about those issues, too, even as some charter supporters continue to wish them away. When charter schools enroll a small proportion of students in a community, the disruption they create is minor. However, there are real consequences when charters grow to 15, 20 or 25 percent or more of public school students, as they have in many cities. School districts have legacy costs for facilities and pensions, and they often are locked into teacher contracts that limit their ability to reallocate or release personnel. By design, districts are not agile or well-positioned to compete with upstart new schools. 

Moreover, in some places, charter schools do not always serve an equitable share of students who require additional education support — for example, special education students and students whose native language is not English. Some charters are more likely to serve parents who, by enrolling their children in a charter school, demonstrate more intense involvement in their children’s education. These issues, too, can create real challenges for school districts as charters start to achieve scale. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, discussions of charter school performance too often are more noise than signal. Extensive data on charter performance drawn from rigorous studies — across multiple cities and states, over time — allow us to safely make some generalizations about charter schools. Urban charter schools serving low-income and black and Hispanic students substantially outperform comparable schools and students. 

A 2015 analysis from the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that students in urban charter schools learn the equivalent of 40 additional days of learning in math and 28 days in reading, per year, and have particularly strong outcomes in some cities such as Boston and New York. Other studies show much more of a mixed bag when it comes to the performance of suburban and rural charter schools. These are all averages, of course; stellar schools and turkeys can be found in all kinds of communities.   

People will disagree about whether the benefits of charter schools outweigh the costs, and it’s an issue where values animate many proponents and opponents as much as data. Yet, in terms of the evidence, any effort to curtail charter schooling must deal forthrightly with how that would limit access to good schools for families that historically have been denied good educational options. Proposals to expand charters must ensure that charters are partners in meeting all the educational challenges in different communities. The current national debate lets everyone off the hook on the hard questions. 

Andrew J. Rotherham is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners. He has worked on charter school policy and research, and with charter schools and school districts, for more than two decades. Follow him on Twitter @arotherham.

Tags Charter school Donald Trump Education Educational equity public schools School choice

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