School Choice & Charters

In Staffing Policies, Charter Schools Seen as ‘Innovative’

By Bess Keller — September 26, 2001 3 min read
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When it comes to hiring, paying, and firing teachers, charter schools are more like private schools than traditional public ones, a report suggests.

The study, by economists Michael Podgursky and Dale Ballou, looks at results from a recent survey of 132 charter schools in seven states with relatively large numbers of the independent public schools. The study was sponsored by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank that supports the idea of charter schools.

Read ” Personnel Policy in Charter Schools,” from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

If charter schools are allowed to depart from the personnel practices of regular public schools, they tend to do exactly that, conclude the researchers, who have studied teacher labor-market issues. For instance, administrators often hire uncertified teachers, many schools offer pay for performance and bonuses in hard-to-staff subjects, and teacher dismissals are common.

The surveyed schools were drawn from a random sample of 200 charter schools open for at least three years in the seven states that account for the bulk of such schools. Those same states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Texas—also provide a relatively large degree of freedom to charter schools, the authors say.

“Where you have fairly strong charter school laws that are supposed to allow flexibility, the schools are taking advantage of it,” said Mr. Ballou, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

In the study, the authors compare charter schools to both private and traditional public schools within the seven states, drawing mostly on federal data but also on survey responses from 32 private schools.

Trade-Offs Cited

Mr. Ballou and Mr. Podgursky, a professor at the University of Missouri- Columbia, caution that their conclusions may not apply in states that grant charter schools less freedom. Moreover, they acknowledge, administrators who are more venturesome in handling personnel decisions may have been the most motivated to respond to the survey.

Compared with other public schools, the authors say, charter schools tend to have fewer students per teacher and higher staff turnover—patterns seen in private schools. Charter schools also have more part-time and inexperienced teachers—twice the ratio of those with less than three years’ experience than regular public schools have.

“In effect, both charter and private schools ‘trade off’ experience for smaller average class size, with charters doing even more of this than private schools,” the report says.

In addition, compared with conventional public schools, charter schools are “much more likely” to employ teachers who lack regular state certification, the researchers found.

Teachers in charter schools also enjoy fewer job protections than their counterparts in traditional public schools. Most of the teachers in those charter schools surveyed had one-year contracts, few were represented by unions, and most worked in schools where firings were fairly common. Four out of five charter schools indicated they had terminated at least one teacher for poor performance over a year’s time.

In contrast to most traditional public schools, about a third of the charter schools surveyed did not base salary growth on experience, and nearly 40 percent did not reward teachers on the basis of coursework and degrees. Nearly half the surveyed schools used performance pay, either on an individual basis, or for their staffs as a whole. Those findings resemble those for the sample of private schools, the authors say.

While the report is primarily descriptive, Mr. Podgursky and Mr. Ballou call the personnel practices of the surveyed charter schools “innovative” and say they contribute to a better mix of “viable options” for educators to get and keep good teachers.

Deanna Duby, a policy analyst for the largest U.S. teachers’ union, the National Education Association, said the differences between charter schools and other public schools are not necessarily positive, as the report tends to portray them. “You have to investigate further, and you have to decide whether these are good things or bad things,” she said.

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