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Advocates Debate Charter Schools’ Performance, Diversity With Lawmakers

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 13, 2018 5 min read
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Charter school supporters, along with one critic of how they’ve served his children, discussed charters’ academic performance, whether they contribute to segregation in education, and whether they’ve been held properly accountable at a House education committee hearing on Wednesday.

While witnesses testifying in favor of charter schools cited their ability to drive learning gains for needy students while still being held responsible through oversight and closures, one parent advocate told lawmakers that in his experience charter schools in Detroit had gotten away with breaking promises about what they would offer to his children, and worried that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is trying to expand that troubled model to the nation.

DeVos, a long-time school choice advocate before taking over as secretary, has consistently promoted charter schools and has sought to increase federal grants for charters by 50 percent, up to $500 million—Congress agreed to a smaller increase for the Federal Charter School Program for the current budget year, appropriating $400 million for the grants.

Charter school politics have also grown more complicated for some advocates and policymakers during the Trump administration, especially for Democrats who have supported them recently.

‘Something in the Water’

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the committee chairwoman, set the tone for much of the hearing when she highlighted the significant demand for charters since they began operating roughly a quarter-century ago. She also said charter schools are often better at involving parents than traditional public schools.

“For many, charter schools are the best options for their students,” Foxx said. “They’re still relatively new on the scene.”

And Nina Rees, the president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, highlighted a 2015 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University showing that in urban charter schools, black student from low-income backgrounds on average gained 59 days of learning in math and 44 days of learning in reading, compared to peers traditional public schools.

“There is something in the water in the charter school movement,” Rees said.

States like Indiana have successfully tackled issues of charter school oversight, said National Association of Charter School Authorizers President and CEO Greg Richmond, by ensuring that a charter school authorizer “can actually lose its power to continue authorizing schools if it approves and lets bad schools stay open.”

And Martin West, an associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, highlighted research about parents’ satisfaction with what goes on in charter school classrooms: “Parents of charter school students ... are much more satisfied with the quality of their child’s school, and in particular the quality of their child’s teacher.”

In general, while the advocates praised the Every Student Succeeds Act for pushing federal grants to focus more on high-achieving charters, the most important decisions about charter authorizing and accountability are made at the state level.

Segregation and Broken Promises

However, others painted a more critical picture of charter schools’ performance and their socioeconomic standing.

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the committee’s top Democrat, for example, cited a 2016 Government Accountability Office report showing that amidst an overall, recent increase in racial and economic isolation in schools, charter schools may exacerbate the issue by ultimately placing students in educational environments that are less diverse.

“Segregation in schools is increasing, particularly in charter schools,” said Scott, who also called the record of charters in Detroit and Michigan in general a “stain on the record of public school choice.” The charter school sector needs to be cleaned up, he said, before it gets more federal funding at the expense of “core programs” like Title I.

Picking up on Scott’s general comments, Jonathan Clark, a parent and community advocate in Detroit, said charter schools in his city had broken pledges made to him and his daughter regarding things like academic course offerings. And when Detroit charter schools closed in his neighborhood, they left behind abandoned buildings, which became havens for “crime and blight.” Clark indicated his concern that DeVos was advocating for his state’s charter sector as a model for the nation.

“Michigan’s charter sector has allowed schools to promise things and not deliver them,” he said. “I would not wish Michigan charter policies on the nation.” Press reports from a few years ago exposed financial mismanagement and other serious problems in the state’s charter sector.

Others argued that charter schools either aren’t held accountable like traditional public schools or divert attention and potentially resources away from the vast majority of students in those schools.

“Why don’t we ask, why don’t those schools have better teachers? Do they need better administrators?” Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., asked, referring to traditional public schools. “It’s not just our responsibility to [focus on] kids who go out to another school.”

Nuanced Views

Neither the three charter school advocates nor Clark took absolutist stances on the issues.

For example, in response to questions from Bonamici about the peformance of online charter schools, Rees cited a recent report her group and others did citing problems in the sector.

“You don’t want to completely get rid of them,” Rees said, because they are sometimes the only option some students have as an alternative to traditional public schools, although she added that, “Their achievement hasn’t kept par with where we want to be as a community.”

West, meanwhile, said that although some might want to pit charters and traditional public schools against each other, “I see them as more complementary, those two approaches, rather than in conflict with one another.” And Richmond said that when it comes to charter school authorizing, there is a “Goldilocks” problem where some authorizers are too lax and some are too strict.

Clark, meanwhile, said he didn’t appear before lawmakers to bash charter schools in general, and was specifically focused on the lack of charter accountability Detroit and Michigan.

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