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Published in Print: October 6, 2004, as Unchartered Waters

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Unchartered Waters

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We should not naively believe that just because a school is not a regular public school, it will necessarily be better. It may be worse.

Charter schools, it appears, have not done as well as regular public schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, even when schools in similar neighborhoods and with similar populations are compared. ("AFT Charter School Study Sparks Heated National Debate," Sept. 1, 2004.) What this means in terms of school quality is not clear. Since the NAEP results do not measure student growth, either for charters or the regular public schools, these schools may be advancing low-achieving students great distances. With this kind of data, we can’t tell. The remarkable thing about charter schools, however, is not their test scores, but how they came to be promoted as a solution in the first place.

The only specific area in which charter schools differ from other public schools is their governance structure. Regular public schools are controlled by local school boards and subject to a range of state laws, regulations, and labor contracts. Charter schools are generally chartered either by the state or through districts, and are freed from many restrictions: state, local, and contractual. They are publicly funded, but function more like private schools.

In all other respects, charter schools have no specific similarity to each other and no specific difference from regular public schools. They may be quite different from the public schools, but they may be quite similar. Some charter schools emphasize a traditional, back-to-basics approach. Others serve inner-city populations and provide a highly individualized program. Some extend hours or impose various extra requirements. Many, however, follow fairly traditional approaches to education even when they make surface alterations such as longer school days. I know of at least one that simply adopted the newly developed curriculum at the public school nearby with which it was competing. And some, most notoriously in Arizona, have been warehouses for children run by people out to make a buck. Although charter schools have more freedom to try different methods, this doesn’t mean they will, or that more effective methods are waiting to be adopted. As a group, consequently, charters are as different from each other as they are from the regular public schools.

Given this lack of any specific philosophy, method, or program—and the huge differences among charter schools—it is remarkable that charter schools could be touted as an alternative to public schools. The reasoning in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which encourages charters, becomes clearer if we substitute “any other school” in place of “charter school.” If your local school is judged inadequate, the logic goes, you can send your child to any other school. As long as it’s not a regular public school, it can innovate and will be better. It may be strict or lax, easy or hard, traditional or experimental. It may be run by a big business or a community group. Because there is little accountability, there’s no knowing whether it will be effective or not. But the point for proponents is not about what the charter schools are—it’s about what they are not: regular public schools. By arguing about whether charters are good or bad as a group, we imply that they have some similarities. Beyond their legal charters and some freedom from regulations, they have no defining characteristics whatsoever.

How could such a loose alternative—defined only by what it is not—be enshrined in federal law? Here, I speculate, it is a matter of ideology. This ideology has three parts. First, there is a belief in “the free market.” The best companies will ultimately succeed, according to this belief, and the same applies to schools. Proponents believe a major reason why public schools don’t do better is that they are monopolies. Give them some competition, they say, and public schools will be forced to shape up; privatizing will solve the problems in education.

While there is something to be said for competition, this theory ignores the large numbers of businesses that are badly run and that fail, as well as the differences between business and education. Charters that are badly managed, use flawed methods, or are run by quacks will hurt many kids, even if these schools eventually fail. In business, we accept this harsh reality, but is it acceptable when it affects thousands of children? Even at its best, the market takes time to work its magic (look at Enron). In the meantime, lots of people get hurt (look at Enron). Some will argue that children are already hurt by bad public schools, but hurting children as a matter of policy (the best will survive, the others will fail), hardly sounds like an improvement.

The second part of the ideology has to do with freedom from regulations, demands, and constraints. This is a curious piece of public policy. If policymakers really believed that relaxing constraints would enhance school quality, you would think they might relax those constraints for all schools. Not so. Instead, they pass the most constraining and demanding public education legislation in the history of the nation, then promote schools outside the system.

While various states remove charter schools from various components of state law and local policy, the main constraints removed are local control and labor agreements. So here we arrive at a defining difference between charter schools and regular public schools. Charters are freed from union contracts. Many charter school promoters see this as a huge plus. Whether the schools drill kids for eight hours a day, and a half-day on Saturdays, or whether they have no requirements whatsoever, they must be good because they aren’t unionized. Whatever you may think of teachers’ unions, or unions in general, this seems a weak educational philosophy upon which to build an alternative school system.

Third, it is even more curious that the No Child Left Behind law champions charters even as it demands that alternative approaches be proven or “research based.” Research is needed, apparently, only for alternatives that policymakers don’t already believe in. If they believe in something, the research part doesn’t count. No one knows whether charter schools will develop effective new approaches, as proponents claim, or whether they will work at all. And no official effort is being made to find out. Talk about faith-based initiatives.


I am not opposed to charter schools. I lament the passing of the days, a generation ago, when there were many “alternative” schools and programs that provided a different form of education to children who needed or wanted a different approach, from potential dropouts to some of the brightest kids in town. Kids need more alternatives, and given the increasing demands on the public schools (more regulations from those policymakers who believe that fewer regulations will improve education), it is hard for public schools to offer those alternatives. To the extent that charter schools provide a different (and more effective) environment for some students—and some charter schools do—they deserve support. On the other hand, we should not naively believe that just because a school is not a regular public school, it will necessarily be better. It may be worse. In fact, if you believe the recent analyses of the NAEP results, the average charter school is worse, at least in math and reading.

Charter schools, it appears, have not done as well as regular public schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Which leads to the final point. The criteria setting off the current controversy are narrow and limited. While lower average reading and math scores for charter school students are worth noting, it is possible that some of these schools are emphasizing different qualities or taking on children with special issues, needs, concerns, or goals that are not captured in the data. Some may work with kids in danger of dropping out because of language or learning style. Some may emphasize survival skills in the city, or promote leadership or good citizenship or creativity. If they promote these successfully—if the kids grow in confidence and competence and connections to their communities—their advances in citizenship or inventiveness may overshadow their lag in reading and math. It’s hard to measure, but they might be skilled in running a business or analyzing market trends, in computers or carpentry, or in a visual or performing art. They might even vote when they graduate. We ought to find out what results these schools are producing.

In our test-crazed society, we often forget the goals of education. People want children to have basic skills, but they also want them to be involved citizens and competent workers in a range of professions. Parents want their children to learn, but also to be happy, healthy, productive citizens. Schools have a large role to play in this equation, like it or not. Overemphasizing test scores weakens the entire enterprise.

The main problem with charter schools is that they are not seen and judged individually. Conservatives tout them because they are not unionized and are not public schools. Progressives fight them because they drain money from local schools without local accountability (a legitimate grievance). And because most states are incapable of judging their quality, or don’t try, too many charter schools are not evaluated competently, if at all. So instead of looking at whether individual schools work, or whether innovative practices are appearing, we continue to debate whether charters as a group are good or bad.


As we explore this controversy, we should consider several points. First, the funding issues must be resolved. Unfair funding formulas fuel much of the debate. Unless a formula is devised to treat all schools fairly, the charter wars will continue. Second, accountability measures must be developed that judge all schools individually, including measures of student growth and both local and state input. Unless good charter schools can be separated from bad ones, children will suffer and the problems will continue.

The main problem with charter schools is that they are not seen and judged individually.

Third, we need to broaden our goals and measures for education beyond scores on standardized tests. Parents expect more, society needs more, and children deserve more than math and reading test scores. As we have winnowed the purposes of schooling down to some narrow, easily testable areas, important learning is getting lost. We need to think much more broadly about what is important in education, and what schools should be accountable for. If we do, public schools will do a better job for children, and charters will surely have a role to play.

Each of these is a serious and complex issue, but the question of charters will not be resolved until we rise above ideology to confront the complexity of the education process. Either bad charter schools will be supported with public funds along with the good, or good charter schools will be terminated along with the bad. Neither of these is desirable; both will hurt children.

To avoid this fate, we need to raise the level of discourse. We need to abandon ideological arguments like public vs. private or union vs. nonunion and open a more thoughtful dialogue about what schools should do and be accountable for, which regulations are truly needed and which are not, appropriate funding, and ways to promote effective alternative methods. Then, and only then, will we be working toward better schools for all children.

Vol. 24, Issue 06, Pages 32,44

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