Time for détente between charter and traditional public schools


Both forms of public schools can share the blame for failing students. But, more important, they should share the wealth when they find successful concepts that can help all students.


Although charter schools have been available for about 20 years, the dialogue around them has changed significantly in the past five years. They have become an intrinsic part of the American K-12 public school landscape, but the part they play has been controversial and divisive. Their success rate has been questioned by some and praised by others.

When I served on a local school board in Texas in the 1990s and early 2000s, my district had only a handful of charter schools. Most were dedicated to serving specific student populations: children with special needs, learning disabilities, and disciplinary issues. One centered on academic subject matter and was part of the area’s community college.

What we were promised about charter schools back then were primarily two things. First, charter schools would serve students with some kind of identified special need, who might not fare well in traditional public schools. Second, charter schools would strive for innovation, possibly because time- consuming regulations would be removed, and when those innovative strategies worked, they would be shared with district schools and spread throughout the entire public school system. While the first of those two things proved to be true, the second did not. In fact, I saw little if any interaction between the charter schools and the traditional public schools. The charter schools may have been public schools literally, but that was where any shared identity or practices stopped. I never saw any innovative best practices shared with traditional public schools.

In today’s environment, charter schools and traditional public schools are pitted against each other, and it’s not good for either one of them.

Since that time, charter schools have greatly expanded across the nation, although they currently serve only 4.6% of all students who attend public schools. It is not the number of students they serve that has dictated the charter school movement’s momentum in the last five years. Rather, it is a belief that charter schools are more desirable than traditional public schools, and therefore there should be more of them. Perhaps nothing better illustrates this belief than David Guggenheim’s  2010  documentary “Waiting for Superman.” The film points out the failures of the American public school system and follows several families who are desperately seeking to win a lottery so they can enroll their children in charter schools. The film portrays traditional public schools as bleak and hopeless and charter schools as offering unlimited hope and promise. As a result, in today’s environment, charter schools and traditional public schools are pitted against each other, and it’s not good for either one of them.

Choice within the public school system can be a positive enticement for parents and families. Whether we mean traditional public schools, neighborhood schools, magnet schools, or charter schools, all of these choices can be available to meet the needs of students. My experience with public school choice showed me that it kept families in public schools and provided strong choices for families, with many families choosing different options for different children within their family. However, when one of those choices, i.e., charter schools, is presented as the best choice to the detriment of all others, the system is not served well. All choices within the public school system should offer excellent educational choices, allowing families to make decisions based on what is best for their children.


Conflicting data

Various studies offer conflicting and very different data about the performance of charter schools as compared to traditional public schools, yet there are statistics and results worth studying. A recent Stanford University study found that in some states, students in charter schools performed better than students in traditional public schools, but a majority of charters across the country deliver no better results than traditional public schools in reading, and 40% are about the same in math. Only 25% of charter schools performed better than traditional public schools in reading, while 29% of charters had better results in math. The study, described as the largest study of charter school performance in the country, used test scores from 1.5 million charter school students in 26 states and the District of Columbia and compared them with results from students attending traditional public schools. About a quarter of charter schools in the study had better performance than traditional public schools. The original study, done in 2009, had shown less favorable results: Only 17% of charter schools performed better than traditional public schools in math, and 37% did worse. Margaret Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford, said, “The results reveal that the charter school sector is getting better on average and that charter schools are benefiting low-income, disadvantaged, and special education students.” The study also notes that nationally, about 2.3 million students attend privately run, publicly funded charter schools. (See Raymond’s article in this issue on p. 8.)

Some groups don’t accept the results of the Stanford study. The Center for Education Reform (CER), based in Washington, D.C., was one of them. “No matter how well-intentioned, the CREDO re search is not charter school performance gospel,” said Jeanne Allen, then-president of CER. The study “is based on stacking rounds of state education department data into an analytical process that is decidedly lacking in rigor,” she said. In fact, the very same study that was used to tout the progress and improvement of charter schools was also used to conclude that although charter schools have improved in the last few years, they do not produce any better academic results than traditional public schools.


Impressive gains

Few argue that there have not been impressive gains in the performance of Washington, D.C., charter schools, where 43% of public school students attend charters and performed better in reading and math than their traditional public school counter parts. The CREDO study is “very strong affirmation of the power of charter schools when they’re done right,” said Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board. Several factors helped D.C. charters improve, Pearson said, including, “a model law, an authorizer with an unusual in dependence, and an incredible ecosystem with support organizations that help our schools. Our schools have formed a real community amongst themselves.” It appears that D.C. charter schools and the states that showed the best results did so after closing their worst-performing schools. Over one-third of the charter schools in Washington, D.C., have been shut down. That scenario has caused many to say that the results were not really viable because charter schools used data from their best-performing schools.

With fewer than 5% of the nation’s public school students attending about 6,000 charter schools, the research about how charter schools compare with traditional public schools is becoming more important because of federal policies that have encouraged more charters. The Stanford study found that poor children, including large numbers of African-American and Hispanic children, are attending public charter schools and making significant academic gains, while poor children of all races are not showing such gains in traditional public schools.

Charter schools have made progress in their performance over the past several years, and yet they haven’t clearly shown that they’re performing better overall than traditional public schools.

No matter what people extrapolate from various studies, two things seem to be true: Charter schools have made progress in their performance over the past several years, and yet they haven’t clearly shown that they’re performing better overall than traditional public schools. In a time of budget cuts to education, many say charter schools take away funding needed in the public schools that serve 95% of America’s students. Still others say that many charter schools already have squandered taxpayer money and have displayed fraudulent financial practices. Some communities and states have been reluctant to welcome charter schools in school systems that are successful because they don’t want funding removed from schools that already are doing well. Others only want charter schools that are run by groups with a proven track record of success and that are, in some cases, nonprofit operations. Still others want charter schools authorized only by locally elected school boards.


Funding battles

Those charter schools I mentioned in my own school district were generally housed in less than stellar facilities, some in older strip shopping malls. But charter schools are now seeking funds for better facilities. Unlike traditional public schools, most can’t obtain taxpayer-backed bonds for school facilities, construction, and renovation. More challenging for charter schools is that they typically have short contracts with their authorizers, making it difficult to obtain long-term loans. Often, charter schools occupy space in strip shopping centers, and many also share space with churches. More frequently, charter schools are trying to use facilities that school districts no longer use. Districts often aren’t cooperative with this arrangement and don’t want charters to use those buildings.

The facilities puzzle is a huge obstacle for charter schools. Science and computer labs, kitchens and cafeterias, gyms, and libraries are hard to come by. And any money spent on facilities means less money to spend on academics. Some school districts, such as New York City, have set the precedent of providing space for charter schools, referred to as colocation. In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, has sued over the arrangement. In some of these situations, the two entities have found positive ways to work together; in others, differing school cultures have made that impossible.


The larger debate

The proliferation of charter schools, along with the accelerated talk about failing public schools, has become a flashpoint in the current battle for school reform. Charter school proponents are pushing for more charter schools, arguing that they are superior to regular public schools and that they can serve challenged students better. Proponents of traditional public schools argue that they’re educating 95% of the nation’s children and that any funding lost to charter schools makes it just that much more difficult. Many public education advocates who supported President Obama in his first election are now disillusioned with his education agenda and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan because they have supported and expanded charter schools. In addition, the entrance of private funders who are investing heavily in charter schools has stirred controversy and led to claims that the public education system is being privatized and affected in ways inconsistent with being a public institution.

From the data on performance for traditional public schools and charter schools, the case can be made that in at least in some ways, they are similar. Some of them are outstanding and show exemplary results. Some are average and could trend either way. And some of them are clearly failing. This under cuts the notion that we need more charter schools because of any proof that they’re better. The rea son that charter schools should be part of the choice within public education goes back to one of the main reasons they were started. The promise of charter schools was that if we freed them from many bureaucratic regulations they would be able to innovate and find new ways to be successful. Lessons learned and innovative practices out of this experimental laboratory might be embraced by all public schools. And because charter schools are often formed around the needs of a specific set of children or a certain subject, they could provide traditional public schools with new ways of reaching these children or teaching certain subjects better.

Parents for Public Schools (PPS) is a national parent organization that keeps an eye on the entire public school system. It does not have a stand on charter schools. (Note: The national board of Parents for Public Schools has a published stand against using taxpayer funds for private school tuition.) Our interest is that all children receive a quality public education and the opportunities that will afford them productive lives. PPS also advocates for adequately funding public schools and providing the necessary financial resources to do the job we require of them. For that reason, PPS is interested in what charter schools contribute to the success of public education and how they can successfully coexist with traditional public schools. Many of our members have successful charter schools in their school districts and are supportive of them; other members aren’t in favor of public charters and say they hurt traditional public schools. In this way, our membership is a microcosm of the public.

Education funding is tight these days, and it isn’t beneficial for public education in America to have competing forces within it vying for funding and support


Improving all public schools

Education funding is tight these days, and it isn’t beneficial for public education in America to have competing forces within it vying for funding and support. We need to support and improve all public schools, and we know that financial resources will always be at the heart of this mandate. Therefore, it would be beneficial if we could determine the role of charter schools, their mission, and how they relate to traditional public schools. We should support those traditional public schools that are reaching high student achievement and, just as with successful charter schools, we should pass along their best practices to other schools. We should continue to work on those schools that aren’t achieving high results. When we see failing schools turn around or when we see successful charter school efforts, we should replicate the practices of those schools in our most challenging schools.

We can’t afford to say that those public schools that are failing can’t be improved because there are children in those schools who are counting on us. David Kirp, in his book Improbable Scholars (Oxford University Press, 2013), chronicles schools in Union City, N.J., just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Union City is a poor, crowded, Latino community once considered one of the worst in the state. Schools there have managed to close the achievement gap and now have students who are competitive with their suburban counterparts. These students are scoring at high levels on tests, with a 90% graduation rate and a 60% college attendance rate, while winning scholar ships to colleges. The school district didn’t depend on any silver bullet like charter schools but rather on proven and time-tested strategies like early childhood education and professional learning for teachers. The example of Union City is important because it shows that a poor, urban district can indeed turn around and achieve high results with students. If one district can do this, it strips away the excuses of all others. It did not take a charter school to achieve these results — they were achieved by combining various strategies that have been shown to work. We need to spread those strategies to all schools.

There is still a strong desire for public education in our nation, and this includes many people who do not want more reforms that will privatize public schools. They want to see American taxpayers continue to support a free public education system with their tax dollars, while locally elected school boards govern that system. They don’t want for-profit companies running charter schools. And while some might like to see charter schools go away, others just want to establish their place within the public education system and let them do their job. The reality is that the number of students in charter schools represents a tiny piece of the pie, and it isn’t likely that a majority of students will ever attend charter schools.

Proponents of charter schools say charters offer objectives that their local public schools aren’t equipped to teach successfully — things like “back to basics,” Afrocentric principles, arts, and drama. They say that schools can be most effective when they’re uninhibited by legislation and bureaucracy and that teachers and administrators in charters feel empowered by this freedom and are therefore more effective. Charter school proponents say parents are more likely to participate in their children’s education because they were given the power to choose and are then more responsible for their children’s education. Charter school supporters say charter schools create healthy competition among schools and incentives for higher levels of performance. They also say that charter schools are effective as educational laboratories and that their success should be used to spur advancement in public school systems.

Charter school opponents say all students — not just some — should be given the best education possible. The best way to achieve that goal, they say, is to put all of the best educational resources and energy into improving existing schools. Similarly, they say tax money should be used for the largest public good, i.e., improving the existing system. Charter schools often siphon active parents, opponents say, because parents who choose charter schools are often highly involved in their children’s education. Removing these parents creates an energy drain in the remaining schools. Opponents say that theme- based charter schools can shift the balance in public schools. Charters based on arts and drama, for ex ample, remove the artistic students from the school system and create a drought in other public schools. Finally, opponents say that when charter schools avoid the rules imposed by a district’s bureaucracy they may be getting away from rules that promote equality, fiscal responsibility, and operational effectiveness. Many state and federal regulations seek to ensure that all children receive an equal education, particularly children of color and children with dis abilities. Many people say that these goals should not be abandoned.


The best choice: High-quality public schools

Academically strong, fiscally responsible charter schools can be a desirable and viable choice within the public school system. They have the potential to offer parents a choice for their children who may not do as well in a traditional public school. Magnet schools offer students the best of a traditional public school, with the added bonus of selected academic offerings, including such disciplines as the arts, law, sciences, communications, and the classics. Neighborhood schools are still the choice for many families with strong academic focus and a geographic community built around the school.

Public schools thrive when parents see the needs of their children being met. Offering choices within the public school system while ensuring the strength and success of all of them is the best way to attract and keep families in public schools. All of us who care deeply about public education should continue to insist on and work for public schools that deliver a quality education. If we can agree on the choices within our public school system and the part that each plays and make sure that they are all funded with equity, adequacy and capacity, we can achieve those goals.


Citation: Foster, A. (2014). Time for détente between charter and traditional public schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 95 (5), 18-22.

ANNE FOSTER (afoster@parents4publicschools.org) is executive director of Parents for Public Schools and a former school board member and president.

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