21 Apr, 2016

Why the charter school debate has moved beyond ‘better’ or ‘worse’

Published in The Conversation | written by Joshua Cowen. Associate Professor of Educational Policy, Michigan State University | April 20 2016

activematters comment | The parallels’ between the push for academies in the UK and charter schools in the US – needs to reviewed – in light of the fact that the US, have pursued this strategy since 1991 – with very mixed results. The question remains that children with problems are either pushed out of the system or avoided completely – to maintain grade averages – this begs the question – where will the increasing number of children with obesity fit into this new UK model!

Abstract: The charter school debate is getting even more heated. Recently, charter opponents launched a campaign from the steps of the Massachusetts State House to warn that charter schools were “sapping resources from the traditional schools that serve most minority students, and creating a two-track system.” Similar opposition has been voiced by critics across the country as well.

What’s the evidence? So when it comes to educating kids, are charter schools good or bad?

As a researcher who studies school choice, I know that many of these arguments are reflected in evidence. But, the truth is, when you look nationwide, the effects of charter schooling on student test scores are mixed – charters in some states do better than traditional public schools, worse or about the same in others.

Research has been less ambiguous when it comes to educational attainment. We know that kids from Boston charter schools, for example, are more likely to pass the state’s high school exit exam “with especially large effects on the likelihood of qualifying for a state-sponsored college scholarship.” Charters also “induce a clear shift from two-year to four-year colleges.”

What’s more, a new study published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (the top peer-reviewed policy journal in the country) has shown that students from charter schools not only persist longer in college than those from traditional public schools, but also earn more in income later.

But critics charge that charters achieve these kinds of effects by pushing out kids with learning disabilities or problematic behavior – or avoid such children altogether.

Differing views

Minnesota authorized the first charter schools in 1991. Charter schools are public schools that are independent and more autonomous than traditional schools and typically based around a particular educational mission or philosophy.

Charters’ governance structure – who can operate a charter and what kind of oversight they face – varies by state. For example, while charter schools in some states are managed by nonprofit organizations, in other states they are run for a fee by for-profit companies.

Regardless, over the years, an increasing number of students have been enrolling in charter schools. At present there are more than three million students enrolled in 6,700 charter schools across 42 states. Nationally, charter school enrollment has more than tripled since 2000.

The response to charter prevalence is varied: proponents say these schools provide a vital opportunity for children to attend high-quality alternatives to traditional public schools. Especially when those traditional schools are struggling or underperforming.

Opponents, like those in Boston, say charter schools are threats to the very idea of public schooling – they weaken neighborhood schools by reducing enrollment, capturing their funding and prioritizing high-ability students instead of those most in need of educational improvements.