School Choice & Charters Opinion

A Critical Look at the Charter School Debate

By Margaret E. Raymond & Phi Delta Kappan — March 27, 2014 15 min read
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The British philosopher John Stuart Mill remarked, “In all intellectual debates, both sides tend to be correct in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny.” Nowhere in the swirling arguments about improving K-12 education in the United States is his notion truer than when applied to charter schools. Maligned and revered, exemplified or reviled, almost every discussion about charter schools involves a tangle of differing histories, theories, values, and facts. Worse, many times, the parties to the discussion aren’t even aware they’re operating on different planes of discourse. A sort of mental grid-lock often results. A roadmap of the different layers of the charter school debate, such as proposed here, may provide needed guidance.

The foul-up occurs across the country and across the spectrum of education policy discussions. As a provider of evidence, I have joined many conversations about charter schools with school boards, district leadership, state education agencies, legislatures, and national advocacy groups. It is surprising how frequently earnest and well-meaning people speak past each other. This miscommunication is sometimes intentional and sometimes unintentional.

The breakdown is especially serious because the topic is charter schools — the widest reaching school reform initiative in the United States. With over 20 years of operating public schools in a relaxed regulatory environment in exchange for tighter accountability (or so it is supposed to be), the collective experience of nearly 6,000 charter schools is a monumental and largely untapped knowledge base about “doing school” under different terms and conditions. Policy leaders are hoping that the relaxed regulatory arrangement for charter schools will deliver an array of results: improved student academic learning, more engaging professional settings for teachers, greater educational equity across student groups, or innovative practices in and out of the classroom.

The American public is aware of these opportunities. In the 2013 PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, slightly less than 70% of Americans supported charter schools, and two of three Americans supported new charter schools in their communities (Bushaw & Lopez, 2013, p. 17). Further, most Americans (52%) said charter schools provide a better education than other public schools (p. 17). With solid support, the political stakes are extremely high so it is little wonder that the debate is equally charged.

By separating and addressing the layers of debate, a clearer picture of the issues and possible points of agreement emerges. At a minimum, highlighting the various tiers of discussion enables us to more readily recognize when the discussion is operating on conflicting planes. And if we do better than John Stuart Mill suggests and highlight the strength and folly of the opposing views, we may be able to shed helpful light on key elements of the policy discussion.

Ideology and models of social welfare

Charter schools provide the backdrop for an on-going debate about the aims of publicly supported education and the role of the individual in relation to the larger community. Not surprisingly, the lines do not fall cleanly into charter versus traditional public schools. Instead, the boundaries of ideology cut through both camps. Liberals, progressives, conservatives, and libertarians are found both pressing for charter schools and opposing them, obviously with different points of focus and emphasis.

Progressives stress the opportunity and necessity of social progress, usually driven by an empirical foundation. Through gradual reform of social and welfare policies, progressives seek a democratic society that reduces inequality, poverty, and discrimination, which are viewed as negative byproducts of capitalism. Much of the effort to reform policies and institutions necessarily involves an active central role of government. Facets of the charter school scheme appeal to progressives — the emphasis on improved equality of outcomes for historically disadvantaged students, strong education as an antidote to poverty, and providing adequate preparation for all students regardless of background. But having charter schools operate outside of government control does not.

Liberals share the ideal of equality, but seek to couple it with a wide range of personal freedoms, including voting rights, freedom of religion, property rights, and other choices of personal value. Support of personal development and opportunity are central to the liberal notion of government. Many charter school leaders and board members consider themselves liberal and point to the general tenet of charter schools that every student can perform at high levels as a key value. High expectations, personal responsibility, and the dignity of each and every person are common themes in charter schools, all of which align with a liberal outlook. Conversely, liberal charter school opponents point to higher racial concentrations (regardless of potentially superior academic results) in many urban settings as inimical to developing tolerance and acceptance of diverse colleagues. A few are downright suspicious when some of the “no excuses” schools encourage students to think of themselves as “fighters” or “warriors.” Many fear that students will lose their affinity to community by the strong emphasis on personal development.

Conservatives are harder to peg, as their positions and precepts are in flux. But it would be fair to say that more contemporary conservatives stress education and culture as important tools for illuminating a strong social order grounded in morality and fealty to community, country, and a higher power. They prefer government in a minimal role and advocate rights and obligations of self-determinism. Many conservative supporters of charter schools see educational success as essential for full participation in society, as well as a key to economic and social parity. Conservatives who oppose charter schools paint the range of school models and options as frivolous and inefficient. They lament the inclusion of life skills in curriculum and oppose services that replicate activities of the family. They also bemoan the tight coupling of performance and accountability, preferring to let parents decide what’s in their children’s best interests.

Libertarians favor the policy of choice advocated by Milton Friedman, in which parents can select from an array of schools, both public and private, which differentiate themselves in various ways. Parents would essentially control the allocation of public funding associated with their children. In the libertarian view, a robust market of schools would ultimately be the most responsive to parent demands; parents would reject schools that failed to provide a sufficient school experience, and ultimately those schools would disappear. Libertarians like charter schools because of their variety but, in all likelihood, are dissatisfied that they don’t go far enough in supporting parent choice. In fact, many libertarians think charters prevent education in the United States from evolving into a full voucher system.

Legislative and regulatory paradigms

Much of the debate about the appropriate legal and regulatory framework for charter schools derives from the ideological differences mentioned above. The prevailing differences concern the degree of operating latitude and oversight charter schools should receive. The conflict appears at both ends of the flexibility-for-accountability compact. In the area of relaxed regulations, opponents, rather than striving for more flexibility for all public schools, try to impose on charter schools many of the same requirements facing traditional schools. Some of this behavior is due to a reliance on government to set the course, which aligns with the ideals of progressives. Yet, unless one is completely convinced — against decades of evidence across the globe to the contrary — that a strong central institution is the best architect of local policy, a better approach would be to seek similar flexibility for all schools. Of course, this would require term contracts and accountability, which many charter school opponents prefer to avoid. Some of these efforts have succeeded: Current legislative and regulatory policy creates disadvantages for charter schools in places where they lack financial or facilities parity.

On the accountability side of the deal, supporters have their own conflict, independent of any dis-agreement with opponents. Some supporters embrace strong state accountability while others argue that state regulations stifle innovation. Opponents are quick to capitalize on any negative consequence of charters to push for more draconian forms of accountability over charter operations. The relative low incidence of financial malfeasance or operator misconduct is frequently and conveniently generalized to paint the lot, leading to demands for heavier compliance reporting by schools.

The enduring proportion of underperforming charter schools, some of which are into their second decade of operations, suggests that we need alternate mechanisms to ensure that students get the learning they require to succeed. Authorizers, which are drawn from school districts, colleges, universities, nonprofits, or municipal governments, and which are responsible for charter school oversight, have a range of expertise and resources. Increasingly, they’re called on to exercise their legislatively mandated duty to intervene with charter schools that are failing academically. In many communities, the authorizer operates in a milieu of conflicting signals and expectations, in part due to ideological differences about oversight.

Finding common ground across ideological differences is challenging — people get emotionally in-vested in their utopian ideals. Two possibilities come to mind. First, there is a vast distance between our current reality and any of the desired future states, so it may be helpful to keep to a more pragmatic approach. In addition, all parties must admit that their own views arise from the exposure to diverse philosophies and the cultivation of mind that we wish for all students. Like each of us, today’s students deserve the access to a sufficiently high quality of education (charter or traditional public) that it affords them the chance to choose their own utopia.

Historical and institutional arrangements

Regardless of industry or mission, organizations morph quickly to adopt a second purpose: their own preservation. Organizations display a range of adaptive behaviors, including aggressive defense of their domains, reclassifying mission to eliminate difficult or unpleasant aspects of their work, and reinforcing the status quo, which translates into resistance to new ideas or technological innovation. Clayton Christensen and his team suggest that the institution of public education no longer fits the social and economic context it is intended to serve (Christensen, Johnson, & Horn, 2008).

When applied to the charter school debates, opponents routinely remark that charter schools are “taking money away” from public schools. They suggest that the new forms of governance and operation are “privatization” or “become corporatized” (Ravitch, 2013, p. 15). (Never mind that most charter schools are independent nonprofit entities with no ties to larger chains of charter schools or wealthy philanthropists.) The point here is that opposition to charters is grounded in a notion of historical prerogative, as if the current organization of public schools were somehow baked into our nation’s founding. In fact, the current organization of public schooling has existed for less than a century and, for more than half that time, willfully excluded large fractions of the nation’s youth. Even today, many opponents of charter schools are trying to preserve as much of the legacy organization of public education — including a vigorous defense of its most glaring shortcomings — simply because of history.

The drive to maintain the status quo carries a troubling corollary. Opponents are comfortable trying to hobble charter schools in terms of budgets and facilities while at the same time advancing legal challenges that their own funding is inequitable. It is hard to reconcile both positions in any way that doesn’t harm the students that charter schools serve, for it is they who ultimately bear the brunt of the resource deprivation that grows out of adult squabbling.

Performance or lack thereof

The most fundamental level of the debate about charter schools is whether they work. A growing amount of high-quality research from independent evaluators examines how charter schools perform academically, including several studies from my organization. The accumulating evidence does little to resolve the performance discussion, but this has less to do with inconclusive findings than from differences in how the discussions are framed.

Several studies over the past five years have recognized that, like other public schools, charter schools vary in their ability to move student learning forward. This should not be surprising, given the flexibility that charter schools are permitted. School operators choose to locate in different communities. They differ in their curricular focus and instructional approach. They differ in how they operate their schools. Some school operators make better choices than others, and this is reflected in different performance.

Of course, many people engaged in the school reform debate are unfamiliar with the available re-search. Worse, some who know it well intentionally filter out evidence they don’t agree with (Ravitch, 2013). In such cases, misrepresentation of the facts is both an error of omission and one of commission. Sadly, even leading debaters fall into this trap, which both weakens the discussion and damages the integrity of the policy debate.

On balance, the debate about performance is not on the facts themselves but rather in the inference drawn from them. Take the most recent study on charter schools as an example: In June 2013, CREDO released a study of charter school performance in 27 of the 43 states in which charter schools operate. The states in the study enroll more than 90% of all charter school students, and the study examined four years of performance. Thus, the findings were both stable and inclusive (CREDO, 2013).

The study showed that the charter school sector is improving, both relative to the learning that their students would otherwise gain in local “traditional” public schools and against its past performance. Examining the learning gains of all the students in charter schools in the 27 states, the average student learned more in reading — the annual equivalent of 14 extra school days — than just four years ago. The improvement means that charter school students have seven more days of learning than their peers in other public schools. In math, charter schools improved over the past four years by an amount that equates to 21 extra days of learning. This improvement eliminated any difference in learning between charter school students and their peers in other public schools.

Of course, the full story amplifies the average story with details about the distribution around the average. Many will recall the widely circulated statistic from 2009 that “17% of charter schools out-perform their local public schools, and 37% do worse” (CREDO, 2009). Those metrics applied to math, and the new findings show improvement at both ends of the spectrum: The proportion of charter schools that outperformed their local public schools rose to 29%, and the share that had poorer performance in math dropped to 31%. In reading, 25% of charter schools now outperform their local public school alternatives, and only 19% post worse results. On multiple measures, the charter sector has demonstrated improvement. But there remain a fretful number of below-par schools.

Charter supporters point to the gains in individual learning in both reading and math and the upward trend of school-to-school comparisons as indicators that their efforts to put student learning front and center of their discussions about school quality are paying off. Detractors, on the other hand, pay little heed to the progress in the sector and instead perform a rudimentary (and as it happens flawed) calculation. Their claim is that if 25% of charter schools are outperforming their local public schools it means 75% are failing to perform. (As an aside, the computation is faulty because many of the schools that are no different than their local alternatives are posting equivalent academic gain in an atmosphere of already-realized high achievement.)

Both sides stress the facet of the picture to advantage their position. In doing so, opponents miss a potentially game-changing subtlety. Many of the higher-performing schools are serving the most dis-advantaged students in communities that have been desperate for better schools for their youth. Even if these examples of success are a fraction of the entire charter school sector, the fact that they have strong and enduring records of success should prompt a stampede to learn what they do to cultivate such outcomes and attempt to disseminate those practices in nearby schools that need improving.

Moreover, by failing to give credit and blame in balanced measure, the debate gets polarized in exactly the wrong place. Instead of arguing past each other, the parties could pursue a more effective exploration about the particular balance of flexibility and accountability that exists in various locations, which sets up the chance to consider whether a path can be devised to provide similar arrangements to more public schools. In its purest form, flexibility for accountability is the reform innovation, and the evidence to date suggests that where the contract is fully exercised, schools deliver in ways that help all students, but especially students with previous education deficits. Those examples offer important lessons for other schools—both charter and traditional public schools—to emulate.


  • Bushaw, W.J. & Lopez, S.J. (2013, September). The 45th annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the public’s attitudes toward the public schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 95 (1), 8-25.
  • Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). (2009). Multiple choice: Charter school performance in 16 states. Stanford, CA: Author.
  • Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO). (2013). The second national charter school study. Stanford, CA; Author.
  • Christensen, C., Johnson, C.W., & Horn, M. (2008). Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way we learn. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
  • Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. New York, NY: Knopf.
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