Charter schools face many of the same problems as public schools, including insufficient funding and a lack of resources for serving needy students, a report released last week concludes.
The report, “Charter Schools and Inequality: National Disparities in Funding, Teacher Quality, and Student Support,” is available from Policy Analysis for California Education. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)
“Unless charter enthusiasts can escape deep-seated structural constraints, these independent schools may reproduce stratified layers of student performance, just like garden-variety public schools,” warns the report by researchers with Policy Analysis for California Education.
“On the other hand,” it says, “if charter educators can deliver on their promises of spirited community and effectiveness, they may raise children’s learning curves.”
Researchers from PACE, a collaborative effort between the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University, analyzed data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau and compared it with similar data for 84,000 regular public schools. The Census Bureau surveyed principals from 870 charter schools and 2,847 teachers in those schools during the 1999-2000 school year for the National Center for Educational Statistics.
Since 1991, more than 2,600 charter schools have been formed across the nation, enrolling about 700,000 students in 36 states and the District of Columbia, the report notes. Though charter schools operate with public funding, they are independent of local school boards and do not have to follow most education regulations.
The researchers found that charter school educators are failing to acquire federal money to assist students from low-income families, that many teachers in charter schools do not have full credentials, and that quality differs among types of charter schools.
In most cases, the study found, charter school operators are not tapping in to federal money available to help educate disadvantaged children.
Although 43 percent of the children in charter schools are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, fewer than 5 percent are helped by federal programs—most notably Title I—for which they would qualify.
In an interview, Bruce Fuller, the director of the study and a professor of education and public policy at UC-Berkeley, suggested possible reasons charter schools are not seeking federal Title I aid. Their principals may be overwhelmed with the “day-to-day hassles” of running the charter schools, for instance, and may be wary of monitoring or regulation by the federal government.
Many black and Latino students, in particular, are flocking to charter schools because they provide a stronger sense of community and identity for members of minority groups, the report says.
In many cases, Mr. Fuller argued, children from low-income families would have been better off if they had stayed in regular public schools. Though students may learn better in a charter school where they feel more accepted, he said, charter schools defeat their own purpose when they don’t have resources equal to those of regular schools.
“There’s no question that charter schools do offer hope to hundreds of thousands of families,” he said. “These parents are concerned about mediocre neighborhood schools.”
Charter school proponents disputed the report’s conclusions, saying that it reveals no new facts, and that charter schools and regular public schools can’t be compared because they have different educational strategies.
“If I read that charters schools were doing the same things [as regular schools], I would have to argue why do you need charter schools,” said Marc Dean Millot, the president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based National Charter School Alliance.
Charter schools “take public education out of the hands of very large bureaucracies and move more and more of that power down to an informed citizenry,” Mr. Millot said.
Many parents of minority students are willing to sacrifice the resources of regular schools in order to pursue the benefits of school choice, Mr. Millot said.
Charter schools, in general, rely heavily on teachers who do not have full credentials, but that appears especially to be the case in predominantly black charter schools, the report says.
Charter schools have a harder time attracting teachers than do regular public schools because of lower pay and the dual roles teachers must play, Mr. Fuller said. In the typical charter school, about 48 percent of teachers do not have teaching licenses, compared with only 9 percent in regular schools. In predominantly black charter schools, the number of teachers without full licenses rises to almost 60 percent.
Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of the sociology of education Teachers College, Columbia University, who has studied charter schools, said the report’s findings were not new, and she chided charter school advocates for not heeding such findings.
“A lot of this stuff came out in state-level reports,” Ms. Wells said. “The proponents of charter schools are not listening. This report shows that charter schools are in some way exacerbating the inequalities that already exist in public schools. This reform has done nothing to equalize education.”
But proponents say the small size of most charter schools allows principals the flexibility of looking beyond a piece of paper when hiring teachers.
“They’re not trying to develop a one-size-fits-all approach,” Mr. Millot said of the independent public schools. Such uniformity “undermines what we think is a very important quality of our society, and that is our right to choose.”