Charter Schools: Are They Needed? Looking at Both Sides of the Debate
by Michael Lorenzen
(This is another rescued paper I put up at a now vanished website years ago. I think some web surfers may find it of interest.)
Most reform concepts work by making changes within schools. However, a newer reform idea works by creating entirely new schools. The charter school movement seeks to improve public school by creating new, rival, and competing public schools. The hope is that competition for students will force public schools to improve. However, many do not believe the free market will actually bring this about and may actually harm public schools. Despite the relative newness of the charter concept, the ideas behind it are not new and an examination of education literature can shed a lot of light on the concept.
Description of charter schools
The pro-charter school group, the Michigan Association of Public School Academies (MAPSA), defines on their web page that, "Charter Schools are public schools-free and open to all. They are started by interested parents, educators, and business and community leaders. Each school is created with its own unique curricula and is licensed by a school district, community college or, most often, a state university."
The mostly anti-charter National Education Association, (NEA) furthers the definition by writing on their web site, "These school are deregulated, autonomous and independent of the rules and regulations that govern traditional schools. The theory that underlies the charters is that such freeing of some public schools will hasten educational innovation, improve student achievement, create greater parental involvement, and promote improvement of public education in general. And the theory follows that if there's no educational improvement, the school will be held accountable and the school's charter won't be renewed."
A description of the charter school concept can be constructed including both of the above descriptions and using other sources. Charter schools are public schools that are free from some, but not all, of the regulations that govern most public schools. Any person or group may start their own public school if they can get a charter from an approving educational institution, which is normally a state university. These schools, which are free from many regulations and teachers unions, can attempt to innovate curriculum and learning in ways that traditional public schools can not or will not try.
In districts with charter schools, parents can choose to send their children to either the local public school system or to a charter school. Whichever school the parents chooses, that school gets all of the state funding for that student. It is hoped that making schools compete for students will make them better. If a school system loses a significant number of students and money to charter schools then it is likely going to try to compete with the charter schools by being more responsive to parents and more willing to try reforms that the school previously opposed. Those local school districts that refuse to innovate and improve to keep pace with charter schools will lose money and students. Those charter schools that do not deliver quality instruction will not keep their students and run the risk of going out of business or losing their charter.
Praise and criticism for charter schools
The greatest benefit of charter schools according to its proponents is that all public schools will get better if there is competition. The free market will drive quality instruction and innovation and those schools, which do not respond to market forces, will either get progressively weaker or be closed entirely. The pro-charter Charter Friends National Network writes on its web site, "The purpose of charter schools is not just to create schools. The evaluation (of charter schools) should ask whether districts do in fact act to improve their own programs in response to the appearance of charter laws and charters schools. Most evaluations so far have not looked for these second-order effects. To evaluate the 'ripple effect' requires looking simply at what districts do." Using this argument, if a school district improves after a charter is opened, the charter school idea has worked even if the local school district outperforms the charter school. Both the school district and the charter are needed to create the free market that drove the improvement in the school district.
The United States is a capitalistic society and the free market drives most of what occurs in the economy. The Federal government promotes the free market as it tends to produce jobs and keep prices low. Although different sectors of the market may not always work as well as they should in the free market; the American free market system has created the strongest economy in the world. The only area that the government has historically interfered with the free market is to prevent or destroy monopolies.
The free market can create monopolies but monopolies destroy the free market when they emerge. This reasoning is transferred to public schools with the charter school idea. The public school system as it previously stood was a monopoly. Except for paying for private schooling, the local public school was the only option a parent had for educating their child. Charter schools create competition. And if the free market works for education as it does in the economy, the public schools as a whole will become a better product.
Opponents of charter schools have several counters to this reasoning. Much of it can be found at the NEA web site. Although the free market does a good job as a whole for the economy, there are losers in this system. As such, there will be losers in an educational free market. Do we want children to suffer if they are among the losers? Further, how can you make a school better if you take money away from it? Opponents argue that many of the problems with public schools to begin with are from a lack of funding. Taking money from a school will only make it worse.
Another argument for charter schools is fairness. A form of school choice exists for those have the money. It does not for everyone else. Wrote Nathan (74), "We have a deeply inequitable public school system in which the wealthy already have school choice: middle and upper income families can always move to exclusive suburbs, where the price of admission to 'public' schools is the ability to buy a home and pay real estate taxes. Low and moderate income families do not have this ability. Thus those who defend the current public education system are in fact defending a massive, informal school choice system based on wealth and residence which is arguably the most inequitable system imaginable. As one innercity activist recently said to a charter school critic: 'How dare you insist we send our children to school you will do anything to avoid for your children?' Charter schools offer a much fairer approach to school choice."
Since the traditional public school model relied so heavily on where a student lived, this tended to give the poor the worst public schools. However, an inordinate number of racial minority students live in poor neighborhoods. The traditional public school model then places a higher percentage of minorities in poor schools. This results in a racist system that perpetuates racial privilege. It is not surprising then that many members of these racial groups are supporters of charter schools. They provide parents with a choice of schools. This choice can create better schools for their children, which may help to break the poverty cycle. It is interesting to note that civil rights leader Rosa Parks applied to start a charter school in Detroit based on this reasoning.
Another argument for charter schools is that they empower parents. Charter schools not only give parents the option of creating or attending schools more to their liking, but it also gives them the opportunity to bargain with teachers and administrators in school districts. One area that can be explored is cultural preference. Racial minorities may desire a school that promotes their culture. Religious parents may desire to send their children to schools that promote their moral values. Wrote Smith (56), "Many families with children in the public schools must contend with pressures of assimilation toward mainstream norms as they attempt to transmit their cultural or religious values. To escape these pressures, or to be ensured a certain quality of education, some families choose private education. But only those who can afford private school tuition can use this option. Thus, families whose values are not represented in the mainstream culture and families with low to middle incomes are at a disadvantage in the present structure of public education."
Charter schools give choice to those who previously lacked it. It also assures a higher level of bargaining for a parent if they keep a child in the local school district. The Board of Education will think twice about approving teacher supported curriculum that is opposed by a vocal group of parents. Unpopular curriculum such as sex education and values clarification is less likely to be approved in a district if parents can and will pull their children from the school district. Critics of charter schools point to this as a bad thing. They prefer to allow these curricular decisions to be made by educational professionals. However, most parents believe that the ultimate arbiter of their children's education is themselves and not the state. And as such, this ability to have cultural preferences addressed seriously is popular with parents.
Another criticism of charter schools is that for-profit companies operate many of them. The NEA web site calls them "fly-by-night" companies in derision. A recent article in Educational Leadership wrote about these for-profit schools in Michigan. Wrote Dykgraaf and Lewis (51), "Our conclusions proved troubling. First, cutting expenses is indeed part of the for-profit strategy, which results in consequences for transportation, special education, and the socioeconomic mix of students. Second, we concluded the public is not aware of how drastic for-profit management is in Michigan, for no easily accessible source of information is available on the activity of these management groups. Finally, de facto ownership of these schools rests more with the management companies and not the public."
The NEA's, Dykgraaf, and Lewis's criticism of for-profit charter schools is very understandable. It touches on a fundamentally moral issue. Is it ok to run schools for money? Many would find this objectionable. Cost cutting in areas such as special education is also problematic. Finally, the fact that for-profit schools are truly owned by the corporation and not the state raises many concerns.
Another criticism of charter schools is that they attract students with concerned parents. By their nature, parents have to take an active interest in their children's education to enroll in charter schools. Children who have parents actively involved in their education do better overall than students who do not. Hence, charter schools are going to attract the students who tend to do better in school. The local school system will be left with fewer children who have active parents. This will make it hard to compare the charter with the local school district. If the charter is getting better performing students, it should be doing better on comparable tests. A counter to this argument is that the parents who are concerned about education have a right to send their children to schools that are populated with students of other concerned parents. This is a better learning environment for the students.
Another result of charter schools that this author has not seen considered yet is the concept of property values. Real estate values in areas with poor school systems tend to be low. This is often attributed to the quality of the local public school system. What happens when charter schools are present in a district? If parents can avoid the local public school system by sending a child to a charter school, does this make them more willing to live in the district? If this is the case, property values should rise in these districts. If this proves true, residents of a district will show even more support to charter schools. Although a few more years will need to pass before this kind of research can be done, it does like an interesting research idea.
Analysis of the charter school issue
Not surprisingly, the debate over charter has been informed by the development of education and educational reform in America. As such, looking at the writings of educational researchers and practitioners can help in understanding the charter school issue. Charter schools have not developed in a vacuum. Looking at the wider issues in education is very important.
The belief that charter schools help further the goals of democracy and fairness is important. The notion of democratic equality is very important in the United States. The belief that schooling should serve all regardless of social background and give all an equal chance at an education that will lead to a potentially high social class is widespread. In brief, this belief envisions that all inhabitants of the United States (citizen and alien alike) will receive the same education. Those who are worthy, regardless of the backgrounds of the parents, will succeed and achieve great things and those that are less worthy will through their own efforts select their own less than spectacular destinies. This is a powerful idea that is held by those dedicated to the egalitarian ideal of The Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, by those who are in the working class who believe that providence has delivered what they deserve, and by those who are well off who believe the educational system has justified their own status.
Several scholars have taken note of democratic equality. Cohen and Neufield (73) wrote, In addition to citizenship training and equal treatment, the goal of democratic equality has taken a third form, and that is the pursuit of equal access." Labaree (47) wrote, "Equal access has come to mean that every American should have an equal opportunity to acquire an education at any educational level." These same scholars convincingly trace the development of this vision of equality in America from the development of public elementary schools, the rise of public high schools, and finally the realization of nearly universal access to higher education.
However, the traditional public school system has not delivered on the democratic equality promise. Not all schools are equal. Some are much worse than others are. Poor students in these schools have no choice but to attend them. This results in them not having a fair chance at succeeding. Charter schools give many the belief that democratic equality is still attainable.
Paradoxically, this low public opinion of the local public school system developed because schools tried to deliver on this promise. However, universal school attendance created problems. Can a school be open to all and be excellent? The answer appears to be no too many. By attempting to serve everyone equally, the school serves no on excellently. Access for all creates a problem. Vast numbers of diverse students with various backgrounds have different educational needs. Further, many students do not desire to be in school. This creates a need to make school attractive to these students. This can result in a water downed curriculum that most students can succeed in. Further, as Willis showed in his book on working class students in England, even the students can deliberately choose not to be educated.
Part of the desire for charter schools is the perceived lack of serious education in public schools. Wrote Sedlak at al (preface, x), "There appears to have developed an implicit 'bargain' between students in virtually all of our high schools, which results in a de-emphasis on academic learning and student disengagement from learning. The bargain is negotiated, albeit tacitly, between two parties, both of which have resources, but unequal power. This bargain determines the level of academic learning that takes place in the classroom. Although content and acquisition of knowledge ultimately suffer, the bargain struck in most classrooms furthers its primary goal of making the relationships between educators and students more comfortable and less troublesome."
This idea creates a dual consideration for charter schools and the community. Charter schools can indeed create an alternative to public schools where bargains water down learning. Many want this bargain eliminated. The public does not want students taking easy classes and they want students being challenged academically. They want the students to be challenged and the teachers to push high standards. The hope is that charter schools will do this. However, what promise do we have that the charter schools will not make their own bargains with students? What assurance is there that the current bargaining system will simply not be reproduced in the charter schools? This should make charter school advocates take pause and consider what can occur in the charter schools.
The desire of many to want charter schools is not surprising. People have a strong ownership and desire to participate in the education process. Wrote Cusick (1992), "Individual freedom runs all the way through the system. Parents may or may not support the school board; superintendents may support or oppose the state department; state department staff may alter the intent of federal policy makers. People make and exercise personal decisions, enter and take part on their own terms, and regards those as their rights. Students mix their classes, cultures, and friendships with school requirements; teachers adjust their curriculums to their predilections, create their student relations, and support and oppose principals as they choose. Reformers decide schools need accountability, or principals decide their teachers have too much or too little power. Teachers decide students need more freedom. Each member of the system is free to make his or her own decision and set out on a course of action."
The charter school movement is the ultimate manifestation of Cusick's view of the education process. Charter schools allow unparalleled opportunities for input. Any teacher, administrator, parent, businessperson, or politician can literally start their own public school. The degree to which this can be used to influence the education process is enormous. The amount of educational freedom created is unprecedented. Charter schools are popular now and it is certain they will continue to expand in the near future. It will be interesting to see how well they perform in comparison to public school districts and if these districts change for the better in attempting to compete for students. Regardless, the conditions that created charter schools will remain and this reform is just one way to address them.
Charter Friends National Network. http://web.archive.org/web/20070405174929/http://www.charterfriends.org/.
Cohen, David K. and Barbara Neufield (1981). "The failure of High Schools and the Progress of Education." Daedalus 110 (Summer): 69-89.
Cusick, Philip (1992). The Educational System: Its Nature and Logic. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1990.
Dykgraaf, Christy Lancaster and Shirley Kane Lewis (1998). "For-Profit Charter Schools: What the Public Needs to Know." Educational Leadership 56(2): 51-53.
Labaree, David (1997). "Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle Over Educational Goals." American Educational Research Journal 34 (Spring): 39-81.
Michigan Association of Public School Academies. http://web.archive.org/web/20070405174929/http://www.charterschools.org/.
Nathan, Joe (1998). "Charters and Choice." American Prospect (issue 41): 74-77.
National Education Association. http://www.nea.org/issues/charter/ .
Sedlak, Michael et al. (1986). Selling Students Short: Classroom Reform in the American High School. New York: Teachers College Press.
Smith, Stacy (1998). "The Democratizing Potential of Charter Schools." Educational Leadership 56(2) : 55-58.
Willis, Paul. Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. New York: Columbia University Press.