Equity & Diversity Opinion

Are Some Charter Schools Becoming Parasitic?

By Anthony Cody — February 19, 2013 4 min read
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Are some charter schools functioning in a parasitic way in relationship to the school systems that host them? This is the provocative analysis offered this week by Bruce Baker at his School Finance 101 blog.

In nature, there is a word for organisms that live together. They are called “symbiotic.” When these organisms help one another, as bees that pollinate flowers and receive nectar in return, this is called mutualism. When one is helped and the other is not affected, this is termed commensalism. And when one is helped at the expense of the other, we call this parasitism.

To start with, Mr. Baker warns about the formula for success that charter advocates have succeeded in promoting:

Chartery success (accompanied by headlines, news magazine segments and visits from politicians) is largely defined as A) getting higher test scores or greater test score growth, B) for less money, and C) with the "same" kids


It is increasingly clear that not one of these three claims is supported by much evidence. Furthermore, pursuing these things has led many charter schools to take some shortcuts. Baker offers some clear ways in which charter schools have been exploiting some advantages to expand at the expense of the public school districts with which they coexist.

Some charters pursue what Mr. Baker terms “demographic advantage.” This is the concept recently explored here, whereby charter schools “serve the strivers,” using various means to screen out students who are less apt to succeed. A recent report from Reuters substantiates this pattern.

The graphic below was prepared by Bruce Baker, who explains:

This figure on New York City Charter schools draws on data from a forthcoming article (related to a recent report). In this analysis, I use three years of data from 2008-10, and I estimate a regression equation for each demographic measure, comparing schools that serve the same grade level in the same borough of the city. The graph shows how much lower (or higher) the population share is in each charter school chain, relative to NYC district schools.

This skimming has a negative effect on the surrounding district:

In a heterogeneous urban schooling environment, the more individual schools or groups of schools engage in behavior that cream skims off children who are less poor, less likely to face language barriers, far less likely to have a disability to begin with, and unlikely at all to have a severe disability, the higher the concentration of these children left behind in district schools.(see here for an example.)

This concentration of students that are the most challenging to educate causes harm to surrounding schools in several ways. First of all, many of these students left behind require a higher, more costly level of service. Second, they tend to have lower test scores, which subject their host schools to all the sanctions associated with NCLB “failure.” And the removal of the more capable students from district schools causes declining enrollment, which makes it even harder to keep schools open.

It is important to note that charters do not NEED to be parasitic. They could coexist harmlessly, or even be beneficial to traditional public schools. In the case of the charter school I visited in Albuquerque, we see a school serving students that were not succeeding in the regular school setting. That school fills a niche, and expands the number of students being served well.

We also have to have some sympathy for parents and students who are frustrated by the increasing rigidity of our public schools. Beset with budget cuts, art and music programs have been eliminated, and test scores have become almost our entire focus. In that context, it is understandable why parents might seek alternatives that offer more flexibility. Some even organize charter schools themselves.

In the past, I wrote that while I did not think charter schools were any sort of solution to systemic problems in education, I was not opposed to them. I attended an “alternative” high school in the 70s myself, and I appreciate the idea that we should offer teachers, parents and students avenues to try out different approaches. But we cannot allow these alternatives to inflict great harm on the schools that accept all students.

In nature, the most successful parasites evolve in such a way that while they may cause some harm to their host, they do not kill it off. After all, the parasite cannot thrive without that support. But there may be no such equilibrium established in our schools, based on current trends. We are seeing districts like Philadelphia where there seems to be a downward spiral of school closures and budget cuts afflicting public schools, at the same time significant numbers of students are enrolled in charter schools. If the system collapses entirely, what will happen to the students who have been left behind in the public schools?

The social engineers who have been promoting charters do not seem concerned about the effects on public schools. They have actively promoted the idea of competition between schools. The trouble is that schools are not like shoe stores. When schools close, neighborhoods suffer and children’s lives are disrupted.

We are seeing many communities awakening to the pattern of change that is underway. When it was revealed that the pro-privatization Walton family foundation was funding community hearings on school closures in Chicago, some light bulbs came on. When we learned that hedge fund managers have figured out ways to get some big money out of real estate deals associated with charter schools, some of reason for their enthusiasm for school reform became clear. When connections were uncovered between the biggest virtual charter school chain and ALEC, leading to legislation expanding their market, we began to get the picture. These schools are operating in a much larger marketplace, and are being used as profitable investments for financiers.

In order for our public schools to thrive they need to have the flexibility to meet the needs of the widest range of students possible.
They need adequate funding and the support of their community - and that means we pull together and make sure that our district schools do not become the reservoir of last resort, overburdened with students left behind by charter schools seeking competitive advantages.

Noel Hammatt has posted an analysis of some of the financial costs associated with charter school expansion here.

What do you think? Are some charter schools developing a parasitic relationship with their surrounding school districts?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

Graphic by Bruce Baker, used with permission.

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