School Choice & Charters

Are Charter Schools Overrated? Experts Debate the Question

By Sarah Tully — March 02, 2017 3 min read
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Four experts faced off in a live debate Wednesday night on a range of issues that swirl around charter schools—whether for-profit schools work, what’s best for student achievement, and if charters lead to innovation.

But the discussion came down to a simple question: Are charter schools overrated? And the audience’s answer was “yes.”

The debate was put on by Intelligence Squared U.S., a nonprofit organization that hosts debates on controversial topics that have ranged from “Give Trump a Chance” to “Policing is Racially Biased.”

Online viewers, as well as the live audience, were asked to vote before and after the two-hour event in New York City.

The debaters “for the motion"—those in favor of charter reforms—were Gary Miron, a Western Michigan University education professor who has led charter school studies for the U.S. Department of Education and others, and Julian Vasquez Heilig, a California State University, Sacramento educational leadership professor and a founding member of the Network for Public Education. Vasquez Heilig spearheaded the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on new charter schools last year.

The debaters “against the motion"—those who support charters—were Jeanne Allen, the chief executive officer of the Center for Education Reform who served in the U.S. Department of Education under President Ronald Reagan; and Gerard Robinson, a former Florida education commissioner who was an education adviser to Trump.

The debate comes at a time when expanding school choice, including charter schools, is shaping up to be the main agenda for K-12 under President Donald Trump who brought the issue up during his first formal address to Congress. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been one of the biggest champions for school choice for years, pouring milllions of dollars from her family’s fortune into supporting charters, private school vouchers, and other forms of choice.

Critics argued that charter schools are failing to live up to their original intent of local, accountable options that lead to innovation and higher student achievement. Instead, charters are sometimes run by for-profit management groups and produce mixed academic results.

“I believe that the reform idea has been really taken from us by private interests pursuing ideological and profit motives,” said Miron, who said he has visited more than 700 charter schools for evaluations. “I want my charter school reform back. It feels like somebody has stolen that from us.”

Supporters, however, said charters succeed in giving choices to parents and have boosted student success, especially among disadvantaged students.

“It was for individual parent options because we know our kids better than anyone else,” Allen said. “That is why charter schools are not ... overrated, they are a majority better than any other institution we’ve had.”

Outside of Wednesday’s debate, Robinson and Heilig have spoken out on different sides of last year’s NAACP’s decision to call for a moratorium on charter schools.

While Robinson sees charter schools as creating new opportunities, Heilig said other children get left behind.

“We’re talking about charter schools when we should be talking about the inequality,” Heilig said. “And what we should also be talking about is how charter schools exacerbate the inequality that we see in schools.”

Robinson disagreed. “If the argument’s going to be that inequality we must fix first before we challenge or attack charter schools, you’re in for a very long ride,” Robinson said. “While we’re fixing our public school systems to address inequality, let’s also use charter schools to do the same thing.”

The debate’s winner was determined by the percentage of audience members who changed their minds. In the first vote of live audience members, 33 percent cast votes for the motion and 31 percent against. In the final vote, 54 percent were for the motion and 40 percent were against. The rest were undecided.

Intelligence Squared U.S. debates are live streamed online, carried by up to 220 public radio stations and produced on a podcast. The full charter school debate can be viewed on Intelligence Squared’s YouTube channel.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.