As charter schools have dominated public discussion on education in the past several years, the debate at times has appeared to be between charter schools for the whole country or no charter schools at all. This black-and-white take on charter schools (and many other programs) does a disservice to the complex, multifaceted problems that face our education system. Trying to frame the research that has emerged about charter schools as completely positive or completely negative misses the nuanced approach that most research attempts to take. The problem with charter schools lies not in the research, but in the structure of the argument itself. The argument should instead be about where and when charter schools can make a positive difference.
There needs to be a national shift in the way we examine, address, and resolve issues on education. We need to understand that there is a difference between rural and urban, between poor and rich, between blue-ribbon and turnaround. And, most important, we need to emphasize that within these differences, states and schools must maximize opportunities to provide equitable educations for their students. Instead of wasting time debating whether charter schools should be launched across the entire country, we should instead be examining how to use them well and which communities would benefit from them most.
There needs to be a national shift in the way we examine, address, and resolve issues on education."
Not all areas are right for charter schools. Research has shown that charter schools can be successful, particularly in low-income or historically low-performing areas. A number of factors must be considered in identifying where, when, and how the role of charter schools should be expanded.
Where: When examining a geographic location, consider how well the traditional schools in that area are performing. A 2010 study by the federal Institute of Education Sciences found that charter schools serving higher-income, as compared with low-income, communities actually had a negative impact on student mathematics scores and led to no significant improvements in students’ reading scores. If local schools already have relatively well-performing students (“relatively” being defined as at or above the national average) and sufficient funding to support the existing schools, then it doesn’t make much sense to promote the creation of charter schools. Granted, some parents may be interested in charters, but that isn’t enough to tip the scales.
When: Think about how the state (or district) funds schools. Is there enough money to support both traditional public schools and charter schools? On average, when schools must compete for funding, the funding disparity is anywhere between 4.8 percent and 39.5 percent per pupil. If local or state regulations require charter schools to compete directly with traditional public schools, or make it difficult for charters to access public funding, then promoting charter schools may not be in the best interests of students. Charter schools have the advantage that they can lobby for nonpublic funds, but if they do not have local funds to fall back on, their creation is a gamble. But charter schools should not be a gamble. They should be a tool used when circumstances make them the best option.
How: Even if a zone or region can be identified to promote the use of charter schools, it still does not guarantee that the composition of the school will allow it to provide equitable education to students. Several key studies have demonstrated that in areas that hold lotteries for admission to charters, there is not a statistically significant change in student achievement. Charter schools, and those who administer charters, should carefully consider how students will be admitted and what the student body will reflect. Will a school have a student body that mirrors the region? Or does the school promote a racial or income (i.e., class) imbalance? States need to determine the necessary provisions when granting charters to ensure that all students are served in their communities and within the school itself.
Finally, charter school opponents and proponents alike often raise questions about sustainable funding for such schools. Take the case of Montgomery County, Md., where school zones have been designated green (high-achieving) and red (struggling), with higher amounts of funding being channeled to red zones. Montgomery County uses its budget to focus on income/race imbalance in traditional public schools and to ensure equitable education within the county. In districts like Montgomery County, where there is already a budget focus on equity, charter schools might not be the best tool.
In the end, if we can move beyond the polemics of the charter school debate, we can begin to design the policies that make the most sense when it comes to charters and individual districts.
A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week