School & District Management Opinion

The Charter School Express

By Gary Miron & Leigh Dingerson — October 02, 2009 6 min read
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The latest policy train gathering steam in education focuses on lifting caps, or limits, to charter school expansion. Currently, 24 states and the District of Columbia have some type of limit on charter school growth. These limits, some charter school supporters say, interfere with the goal of a thriving school marketplace.

The latest institution to jump on the expansion express is the U.S. Department of Education. In its July guidelines for the $4 billion Race to the Top program, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that funding priority would be given to those states that lifted or removed caps on charter expansion. In reaction, legislatures around the country began doing just that.

We believe there needs to be more consideration of the implications of lifting charter caps before this train leaves the station. A study released in June by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that, overall, charter schools are performing at levels lower than traditional public schools. Combined with evidence from an increasing number of statewide evaluations, the state-level findings from the Stanford study also suggest that quantity is the enemy of quality in the charter marketplace. (“Study Casts Doubt on Charter School Results,” June 15, 2009.)


Charter schools were created nearly two decades ago as a new form of public school that would improve upon traditional public schools by creating small learning communities, developing and sharing innovative practices, and empowering teachers and parents. They won considerable bipartisan support, and have become one of the most prevalent and most talked-about school reforms in the nation. Today there are more than 4,900 charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia, enrolling 1.5 million students.

Scores of these schools are beacons in a troubled sea of underperforming public schools. But, overall, the sector has shown little evidence that it is more likely than a traditional school system to develop innovative programs or practices. A study released in late September about oversubscribed New York City charters offers some hope. (“N.Y.C. Study Finds Gains for Charters,” Sept. 30, 2009.) But repeated studies over the past decade have failed to find consistent, positive academic change produced by the vast majority of charter schools.

What has changed is the focus of the movement. Once dedicated to educational quality, today’s charter school movement is increasingly dominated by powerful advocates of market-based reform and privatization in public education.

The charter school idea was to create better schools for all children, not to divide limited public resources across parallel systems that perform at similar levels and suffer from similar breaches in accountability.

Their theory of reform assumes that the market must be allowed to proliferate because expansion itself creates the competitive pressure to raise the quality of all schools. It also assumes that competition forces failures. Thus the movement has encouraged rapid growth in the name of “choice,” and presumed that schools that fail to deliver for their students will be shut down.

These principles have become the engine of the charter movement. The Center for Education Reform’s annual ranking of state charter laws, for example, is silent on academic accountability or performance, but identifies the potential for unlimited growth as one of four indicators of a strong charter law. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools lists expansion of the sector as its top legislative priority, arguing that caps on charter expansion unfairly limit access to good charter schools for those who would enroll in them.

The growing body of evidence, however, raises red flags for the pro-expansion agenda. If, as the Stanford report finds, 17 out of 100 charter schools do indeed improve student outcomes, then opening up 100 more charter schools should result in an additional 17 high-quality schools. At the same time, however, doing so also would create twice as many schools—37 out of 100, according to Stanford’s researchers—that actually worsen student outcomes.

The Stanford report identified five states with positive results for student-achievement growth, six with negative results, and four with mixed results. Interestingly, states with the most charter schools were also most likely to be found in the poor-performing group, while states with few charters tended to cluster among the most successful. Specifically, states with positive student-achievement growth had only 61.6 charter schools on average, while those with negative growth had an average of 275 charter schools.

We also noticed in the report a relationship between achievement growth and the rate of charter school creation. The states that granted the largest number of charters in their first 10 years are Arizona (which opened 407 schools in 10 years), Florida (326 schools), Ohio (326 schools), California (308), and Texas (259 schools). Stanford’s data show that four of these five states posted negative student-achievement results, while the fifth, California, showed no significant difference in student performance between charter and traditional public schools.

Further, the report reveals a relationship between state outcomes and the extent to which the charter schools are operated by private education management organizations, or EMOs. As it turns out, in the poorly performing states, a much higher proportion of charter schools are run by for-profit EMOs. With close to one-third of the nation’s charter schools operated by for-profit or nonprofit private management companies, a relationship such as this warrants attention.

More research is needed to understand the negative correlations between charter performance on the one hand, and charter expansion and privatization on the other. For example, perhaps rapid expansion risks overwhelming authorizers, who must provide oversight to their schools. One Ohio authorizer admitted to a journalist that she was “unaware” of gross malpractice at a school under her auspices, until she read about it in the news.

Another possibility is that, in an atmosphere in which rapid expansion is the goal, charters are granted more liberally, on the theory that once schools are up and running, authorizers can sort through the strong ones and the weak ones. A rapidly expanding sector might also attract inexperienced entrepreneurs who believe they can take on the complex task of running a school, or even may think it is an avenue for personal financial gain. Private management companies play a role, too, because they are often used as vehicles to propagate charters.

Whatever the factors, the growing body of independent research suggests that the combination of a rapidly expanding sector and the widely acknowledged challenge of actually closing charter schools once they have opened seems likely to create a train wreck.

Once dedicated to educational quality, today’s charter school movement is increasingly dominated by powerful advocates of market-based reform and privatization in public education.

As the Obama administration considers how to steer and develop charter schools, it would be wise to articulate a new—or renewed—vision for chartering that focuses on quality over quantity. Then, as Secretary Duncan wields his influence, he can persuade states to make revisions in their charter school laws that reflect those goals and values. Most importantly, such guidance should reward states that create successful charter schools, rather than states that simply expand the charter school market.

Finally, authorities need to move more aggressively to close poorly performing charter schools. This will strengthen charter reforms in four ways: lifting the aggregate results for charters that remain; sending a strong message to other charter schools that the autonomy-for-accountability trade-off is real; redirecting media attention from a few scandal-ridden schools to successful schools; and opening up space for new, carefully vetted charters.

Although these suggestions may be seen as antagonistic by the charter school establishment, we believe they will help improve and strengthen such schools in the longer run. The charter school idea was to create better schools for all children, not to divide limited public resources across parallel systems that perform at similar levels and suffer from similar breaches in accountability. Rapid proliferation in the charter sector appears to be interfering with the original vision for the schools: to serve as a lever of change, spurring public schools to improve both by example and replication.

The only way to ensure quality may be to get off the expansion express.

A version of this article appeared in the October 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as The Charter School Express


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