Opinion
Federal Commentary

Changing the Debate on Charter Schools

By Meghan Carton — February 14, 2013 3 min read

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

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Educator-Driven EdTech Design: Help Shape the Future of Classroom Technology
Join us for a collaborative workshop where you will get a live demo of GoGuardian Teacher, including seamless new integrations with Google Classroom, and participate in an interactive design exercise building a feature based on
Content provided by GoGuardian
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: What Did We Learn About Schooling Models This Year?
After a year of living with the pandemic, what schooling models might we turn to as we look ahead to improve the student learning experience? Could year-round schooling be one of them? What about online
School & District Management Webinar What's Ahead for Hybrid Learning: Putting Best Practices in Motion
It’s safe to say hybrid learning—a mix of in-person and remote instruction that evolved quickly during the pandemic—is probably here to stay in K-12 education to some extent. That is the case even though increasing

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Miguel Cardona: Schools Must Work to Win Trust of Families of Color as They Reopen
As Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona announced new school reopening resources, he encouraged a focus on equity and student engagement.
4 min read
Education Secretary nominee Miguel Cardona testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee during his confirmation hearing Feb. 3, 2021.
Now-U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee during his confirmation hearing in February.
Susan Walsh/AP
Federal CDC: Nearly 80 Percent of K-12, Child-Care Workers Have Had at Least One COVID-19 Shot
About four out of five teachers, school staffers, and child-care workers had first COVID-19 vaccine doses by the end of March, CDC says.
2 min read
John Battle High School teacher Jennifer Daniel receives her COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 11, 2021. Teachers received their first vaccine during an all-day event at the Virginia Highlands Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Va.
John Battle High School teacher Jennifer Daniel receives her COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 11at the Virginia Highlands Higher Education Center in Abingdon, Va.
David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP
Federal Ed. Dept. to Review Title IX Rules on Sexual Assault, Gender Equity, LGBTQ Rights
The review could reopen a Trump-era debate on sexual assault in schools, and it could spark legal discord over transgender student rights.
4 min read
Symbols of gender.
iStock/Getty
Federal Q&A EdWeek Q&A: Miguel Cardona Talks Summer Learning, Mental Health, and State Tests
In an interview after a school reopening summit, the education secretary also addressed teachers' union concerns about CDC guidance.
10 min read
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks during a press briefing at the White House on March 17, 2021.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks during a press briefing at the White House on March 17.
Andrew Harnik/AP