Nationally, momentum has been building toward political and public recognition that the education reform movement begun in the early 1980s has fallen well short of promises. This failure was identified throughout the accountability era by educators and scholars, of course, but political leaders and the public chose to ignore those with experience and expertise in their own field.
The problem with the reform movement included a refusal to acknowledge the primary problems in our public schools—overwhelming poverty and inequity of opportunity along social class and racial lines—and ideological commitments to the accountability paradigm (standards and high-stakes testing as well as focusing on so-called teacher quality) despite that solution in no way matching those ignored problems.
A subset of that movement has been the rise of charter schools, which served to bridge a political divide between school choice advocates on the right and public school advocates on the left. Charter schools are touted as public schools, but they also are driven by many elements (the worse kinds) of market forces.
Even with charter school popularity, they constitute a very small percentage of schooling in the U.S. (data from Education Week):
- Traditional public schools: 91,422 (2015-16, Source)
- Public charter schools: 6,855 (2015-16, Source)
- Private schools: 34,576 (2015-16, Source)
And thus: “According to data from three years earlier, 2.8 million public school students, or 5.7 percent, are in charter schools.”
Here is what we know about charter schools, then, messages repeated by educators and scholars for many years. Charter schools do not outperform public schools because they are charter schools (just as private schools do no outperform public schools).
When charter schools claim to outperform public schools, the reasons often lie in serving different populations (notably concerning ELL and special needs students), having the ability to select or counsel out students, and other policies and practices that public schools often cannot or do not implement (longer school days and years, for example).
Charter schools, like all school choice, contribute heavily to segregation—one of the serious problems lingering in public schools today.
Recent reporting at the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC) may suggest the tide is also turning against charter school advocacy trumping evidence:
This media recognition matches messages I have been sending for many years, including damning analysis that charter schools in SC mostly perform the same or worse than comparable public schools:
And my analysis of two years of data on SC charter schools has shown:
- Using 2011 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 3/53 ABOVE Typical, 17/53 Typical, and 33/53 BELOW Typical.
- Using 2013 SC state repost cards and the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” charter schools performed as follows: 2/52 ABOVE Typical, 20/52 Typical, 22/52 BELOW Typical.
Here, then, is a reader to further reinforce how charter schools fail SC, particularly in terms of re-segregating a system long-plagued by race and class inequity:
- Segregation Surprise?: How Public and Charter Schools Have (Always) Failed
- New SAT, but Same Old Problems
- New Orleans RSD Mirage, Not Miracle: A Reader
- UPDATED: Beware the “Miracle” School Claim: “Why not tell the whole story?”
- NPR Whitewashes Charter Schools and Disaster Capitalism in New Orleans
- Thomas, P.L. (2016). Miracle school myth. In W.J. Mathis & T.M. Trujillo, Learning from the Federal Market‐Based Reforms: Lessons for ESSA. Charlotte, NC: IAP.
- Public School, Charter Choice: More Segregation by Design
Challenging the market logic of school choice: A spatial analysis of charter school expansion in Chicago, Stephanie Farmer, Chris D. Poulos, and Ashley Baber
Corporate education reformers take for granted that market competition in the public schools system will improve education conditions. We conducted a spatial analysis of Chicago Public Schools, examining the spatial features of charter school expansion in relation to under-18 population decline, school utilization, and school closure locations. Our findings indicate that 69% of new charter schools were opened in areas with significantly declining under-18 population and approximately 80% of charter schools were opened within walking distance of closed school locations. Our findings show, contrary to corporate education reform logic, that a competitive charter school market created spatial and financial inefficiencies resulting in school closures and systemwide budgetary cuts primarily impacting distressed neighborhoods. We explain the overproduction of charter schools through the lens of the firm-like behavior of charter school operators driven by a self-interested growth mandate that can undermine the stability of the public schools system as a whole.