In the late 1980’s Albert Shanker, an education reformer and leader of a teacher’s union, introduced the idea of charter schools and soon thereafter the first charter school legislation was introduced in Minnesota. Shanker proposed charter schools as publicly funded institutions that put teachers in charge and were free from bureaucracy. Charters were to be given greater flexibility in exchange for greater accountability — they would be authorized for a certain period of time, typically three to five years, after which point their performance would be reviewed and the decision made to either renew or close. The idea behind these schools was to look at alternative forms of teaching to enhance education and to create education equity by eliminating school segregation and offering choice and access to better schools.
Although Shanker’s original vision has morphed slightly over the last 25 or so years, the general premise of charter schools still stands: flexibility for accountability and freedom from school boards and governing bodies in order to allow for greater innovation in learning. Today, charter schools exist in 43 states and the District of Columbia with New Orleans boasting the highest percentage of charter schools in the country, with 92 percent of students attending charters.
Are Charter Schools Better Than Traditional Public Schools?
The effectiveness of charter schools is a hotly contested and often debated issue among educators, parents, researchers and politicians. And studies have been published supporting both sides of the argument: that charters underperform public schools and that they outperform public schools. However, the key difference appears to be the state in which the charter is located and the organizing body by which the charter is run. Similarly, the National Bureau of Economic Research noted that in a study of New York charter schools, “five policies that rarely get measured systematically — frequent teacher feedback, data-driven instruction, intensified tutoring, increased instructional time, and high expectations — can explain roughly half of the variation between more effective and less effective schools.”
As a result of charter laws differing from state to state there are varying degrees of oversight, which can have a dramatic impact on the overall effectiveness of that state’s charters. As David Osborne, author and director of the project on Reinventing America’s Schools at the Progressive Policy Institute, noted in a U.S. News & World Report article:
“In Arizona two statewide authorizers handed out 15-year charters like candy but lacked the capacity to oversee the more than 500 schools that sprung up. The result: CREDO’s 2009 and 2013 studies both found charter students gaining academic ground more slowly than their socioeconomic peers in traditional public school. Texas experienced similar problems and results. In 2003 Ohio gave non-profit organizations both the right to authorize charters and a financial incentive to do so, opening the floodgates to mediocre schools. In Massachusetts, by contrast, the state board was careful who got a charter and closed schools where kids were not learning. CREDO found that the typical charter student in Boston gained the equivalent of 12 extra months of learning in reading and 13 extra months in math every year, compared to demographically similar students in traditional public schools.”
Charters were built on the premise of autonomy in exchange for greater accountability. And it has become clear that when this accountability is not enforced, charters fail to perform as they were intended, performing no better and at times worse than traditional public schools.
Can Charters Help to Close the Achievement Gap?
But perhaps of equal importance is what researchers have noted about the effectiveness of charters with certain demographic groups — that they work best for low-income students in urban areas. Although charters were originally meant to cut down on racial, economical, ethnic and religious segregation within the greater educational ecosystem and bring about education equity, it appears that in fact charters are actually more “economically and racially segregated than traditional schools,” according to the book A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education.
Yet, while the goal of integration may not have been achieved with charters, there is evidence that bringing charters to underserved populations can have a positive effect on educational attainment among students in what are traditionally urban, non-white, low-income communities.
In the New York Times article, Urban Charter Schools Often Succeed. Suburban Ones Often Don’t it was noted,
“A consistent pattern has emerged from this research. In urban areas, where students are overwhelmingly low-achieving, poor and nonwhite, charter schools tend to do better than other public schools in improving student achievement. By contrast, outside of urban areas, where students tend to be white and middle class, charters do no better and sometimes do worse than public schools.
This pattern — positive results in low-income city neighborhoods, zero to negative results in relatively affluent suburbs — holds in lottery studies in Massachusetts as well in a national study of charter schools funded by the Education Department.”
One of the most well known studies on charter school effectiveness, the CREDO study, noted that,
“Black students in poverty who attend charter schools gain an additional 29 days of learning in reading and 36 days in math per year over their [traditional public school] counterparts (see Figure 30). This shows the impact of charter schooling is especially beneficial for black students who are in poverty.”
Charter schools have been particularly successful in the communities that are suffering the greatest inequities in access to quality education. They have been so successful that many charters have long waiting lists, sometimes equal to or exceeding the number of actual students attending the school.
As one of the fastest growing educational reform movements, charters have proven over time to be a strong and viable option for bringing education equity to inner city and disadvantaged students. In fact, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, “In some charter schools, the achievement gap between white and nonwhite students has been eliminated.” By granting underserved students access to high quality education, charters offer an option to families and students, who due to financial barriers, had no other options for quality education previously.
How Charters Help in Urban Areas
By looking at the specific needs and challenges of students in a particular demographic group or community, charters can create a strategy designed specifically for those children. For example, one major issue contributing to disadvantaged kids lower achievement level in school has to do with their life outside of school. Often times their families are in turmoil or scraping to get by. The pressures of home and daily life can significantly impact a student’s ability to concentrate and succeed in school. That’s why the SEED foundation created a network of charter schools that cater to underserved children allowing them to board at the school full time at no cost. This boarding model aims to help students eliminate the distractions and possible negativity of home life and keep them safe and secure while providing a consistent and fulfilling academic experience.
While most charters are only day schools, many charters do have extended school days and school years when compared to district public schools. They also typically place high expectations upon students and teachers and encourage parental involvement.
The debate is not yet over as to the effectiveness of charter schools and their ability to create equitable access to high quality education. However, the research seems clear in proving that charters can have a significantly positive impact on student achievement in the cities and towns most in need, namely in urban, underserved communities.
At the University of San Diego we strongly believe in equity and social justice in education, which is why our Master of Education degree program places such a strong emphasis on understanding and applying these concepts. USD’s 100% online Master of Education degree can be completed in as little as 20 months and was designed specifically for working teachers and educators. To learn more contact a USD admissions advisor.