Opinion
School Choice & Charters Commentary

What’s Public About Charter Schools?

By Gary Miron & Christopher Nelson — May 15, 2002 8 min read

Charter schools seek to reform public education through a blend of elements traditionally found in public schools, such as universal access and public funding, and those traditionally associated with private schools, such as choice, autonomy, and flexibility. This represents an important shift in the definition of the “public” in public education, one that reserves a clear place for the use of private interests in the pursuit of public educational goals.

Charter schools represent an important shift in the definition of the ‘public’ in public education.

The blending of public and private elements is not, however, without controversy, a fact to which recent debate over the U.S. Supreme Court’s consideration of the Cleveland voucher case attests. While the court’s ruling will rest on the constitutional question of separation of church and state, the broader issues at stake involve setting the ground rules for mixing traditionally private concerns like churches and religion with the public provision of education.

As evaluators of charter school reforms, we have spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on the extent to which this public-private hybrid actually serves important public purposes. For the past five years, we have been analyzing evidence from Michigan that bears on these questions. With one of the nation’s more permissive charter school laws, and with extensive involvement of private groups (75 percent of the state’s 184 charter schools were operated by one of 44 for-profit education management organizations during the 2000-01 school year), Michigan provides an illuminating setting in which to observe the interplay of public and private in charter school operation.

In determining what makes a public school public, we must consider two currently used definitions, one based on form, the other on function. The more traditional, formalist definition focuses on whether schools are owned and/or controlled by the citizenry or their elected representatives. Michigan charter schools often come up short on this definition. In fact, there is little evidence that charter school authorizers and state officials offer vigorous oversight of the schools. They often appear reluctant to make public their oversight practices, to say nothing of their findings. Political disincentives for closing poor-performing charter schools may play a part in this reluctance, as well as the fact that many of the schools have very vocal groups of supporters. At the same time, effective oversight is sometimes thwarted as important information about privately managed charter schools is hidden behind the veil of private-property rights. All of this casts doubt on the link between charter schools and the citizenry.

Charter school and school choice advocates, on the other hand, often argue for a more flexible, functionalist definition. Here, a school is public not by virtue of lines of control and authority, but by whether it performs important public functions. The functionalist view gives the larger citizenry and elected officials authority to define the ends of education and to prescribe outcomes, but it largely abjures the need for them to either own or control the means of educational production. The key questions regarding the functionalist definition revolve not around control and ownership but around outcomes.

Our research in Michigan suggests a mixed record on attaining desired outcomes.

Among the commonly stated public functions of charter schools are access and equity, new professional opportunities for teachers, student-achievement gains, innovation, systemic impact, and customer satisfaction. Our research, which examined whether charter schools fulfill these public functions and goals, suggests that the record in Michigan is mixed.

  • Access and equity. A large proportion of Michigan charter schools appear to avoid costly-to-educate students, including high school and special education students.
  • Charter school teachers. Michigan charter school teachers are generally younger, more poorly compensated, less educated, and less ethnically diverse than teachers in the state’s traditional public schools. While charter school teachers are generally satisfied with curriculum and instruction at their schools, many schools have high rates of teacher attrition. Only half the teachers surveyed reported having enhanced professional opportunities.
  • Student achievement. Michigan charter schools post smaller achievement gains and larger losses than matched noncharter public schools, with schools managed by private companies generally showing the weakest performance.
  • Innovation and systemic impact. Some Michigan charter schools are prompting changes in how some districts relate to parents. Likewise, charter schools are pressuring districts to adopt new programs and sharpen their missions. Most of these practices, however, were widely used by traditional public schools before the advent of charter schools. Nor have the competitive pressures unleashed by charter schools leveraged achievement gains in surrounding schools.
  • Customer satisfaction. Charter school students, parents, and teachers in Michigan are generally satisfied with their schools’ curricula and instruction, but less satisfied with their schools’ resources and facilities. Interestingly, we found little relationship between a school’s ability to satisfy its customers and its achievement gains. This casts some doubt on satisfaction as an indicator of school quality.
We found little relationship between a school's ability to satisfy its customers and its achievement gains.

These limitations might be less serious if the schools provide education more efficiently than other public schools. Our research suggests, however, that Michigan charter schools often receive and spend more than comparable traditional schools serving similar students. This is possible since charter schools in Michigan largely cater to lower-elementary students, avoid special education, and do not provide transportation. Over time, the share of spending on instruction in charter schools has drifted downward relative to spending on administration, even as the schools grew in size and passed out of the start-up phase. In short, a simple comparison of costs and benefits suggests that Michigan charter schools often produce inferior outcomes at greater cost than that of noncharter public schools.

In spite of all this, it is clear that some individual charter schools in Michigan are engaging in innovative and effective educational practices. On the whole, though, weak and uneven performance causes the schools to come up short, even on the more outcome-oriented functionalist definition of public-ness.

These problems are not inevitable. Nor do they necessarily point to fatal flaws in the charter concept itself. Concerns about oversight and accountability, for instance, could partially be addressed by requiring authorizing agencies to make public both oversight procedures and findings. And the effectiveness of the market mechanism could be improved by developing more readily comprehensible formats for publicizing performance information on individual charter schools. Financial incentives for charter schools to avoid high-cost students could be addressed by revamping funding formulas to reflect, more closely, the true cost of educating these students.

Finally, in states such as Michigan, the growth of charter schools has come too quickly to allow time for school founders and authorizers to develop the skills and capacities needed to run them properly. Accordingly, legislators should not be too quick to lift statutory caps on the number of charter schools. Rather, they should explore the reasons for poor performance in most of the state’s charter schools. We emphasize that this need not stop the process of creating new charter schools. It does, however, require a weeding process by which the poor-performing charter schools are closed to make way for others with promising ideas.

Charter schools have brought with them a new definition of “public” in “public education,” one that emphasizes outcomes rather than control and ownership. But charter schools in at least one important state come up short even on this more flexible definition, lending at least some credence to concerns that the reform uses public resources to subsidize essentially private activity.

Ultimately, we agree that outcomes are more important than control and ownership.

Ultimately, we agree that outcomes are more important than control and ownership. Indeed, the success of the charter concept should be evaluated by whether it is more effective in improving student outcomes than other uses of public resources (for instance, class-size reduction or comprehensive school reform models). If it turns out that charter schools are more effective than other reforms, then they should be allowed to flourish. Otherwise, the movement should be curtailed or even abandoned.

Given that its charter school law is more beset by difficulties than most others, the view from Michigan is perhaps more negative than for the nation as a whole. Inasmuch as the problems are not inevitable, though, close study of Michigan can provide policymakers across the nation with a wealth of valuable experience upon which to base improvements in their own laws.

As the charter school movement enters its second decade, policymakers should take stock of their charter school laws, identify the correlates of success in the schools, and reform their laws accordingly to ensure that they serve the public good, even if they are privately owned or managed.

Gary Miron is the principal research associate and Christopher Nelson is the senior research associate of the Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich. They are the authors of What’s Public About Charter Schools: Lessons Learned About Choice and Accountability, published recently by Corwin Press. Copies of their state evaluations of charter schools can be downloaded at www.wmich.edu/evalctr.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2002 edition of Education Week as What’s Public About Charter Schools?

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