In recent years there has been quite the controversy over charter schools. What’s that all about?? Today we are going to break it down. What I have found in my research is two basic things. The intentions of charter schools are good, however, not in all cases do they work out for the best. Today we’ll take a look at what’s working and what’s not.
What is a Charter School?
First off, let’s start with a brief explanation of what a charter school is. Appearing in the early 1990s, Charter Schools are independently operated publicly funded schools. They are often started by for profit organizations, community organizations, parents, or teachers. While their funding does come from tax dollars they may also receive funding from private sources but they do not charge tuition. This is a unique set up that requires the schools to adhere to basic state curricular requirements but allows teachers and administrators flexibility and control of the methods and culture of the school. States must approve each school’s “Charter” which details it’s mission, achievement goals, and methods of assessment. The charter will last 3-10 years in which they will be reevaluated in order to keep their charter. Admission is unique at each school. Students do not need to be part of a particular district so admissions my include an application process or may simply be a lottery. Quality and popularity of each school can vary widely. It is because of this variety in quality and the various ways in which states handle the schools' charters there is controversy when it comes to these schools. To learn more about other types of public and private schools check out my article What’s the Difference?
So, as you can see the idea of the charter school is great! It is an opportunity to practically implement new teaching methods. At the same time it is publicly accessible rather than requiring steep tuition costs like independent or private schools. The best of both worlds! So, what’s the issue then?
Now that we have approximately 30 years of data we should have a good understanding of how these charter schools have done and which teaching methods work best. Unfortunately, it’s not quite worked out that way. Education is actually quite tricky to evaluate and measure because there are so many variables. You have to take into account variables such as funding, student diversity, location, economic issues, and cultural issues among others. Because public schools are largely governed by the states rather than the federal government, how charters are approved, assessed, and held accountable vary widely by state.
Let’s break things down by pros and cons first then we can dive into the details.
The Bottom Line
The fact of the matter is, it all depends. It depends on the state and it depends on the school. In some states charter schools are going well just as some schools are doing amazing innovative work. In other states and other schools things aren’t going so well. This has to do with how differently states oversee charters. For example, in some states a charter is renewed every 3-5 years and if things aren’t found to be up to par they will have 1 year to make changes. However, there are a few states where charters aren’t up for renewal for up to 15 years. This means that in some cases there are students who could make it all the way through their education with out their schools being reviewed. To learn more about how each state handles charter schools in general take a look at this 50 State Comparison by the Education Commission of the States. As a matter of fact, in some states there is such insufficient oversight that a 2015 report cites $203 million in fraud, waste, and mismanagement, including the 2014 total plus $23 million in new cases, and $44 million in earlier cases not included in 2014’s report. The report, titled “The Tip of the Iceberg: Charter School Vulnerabilities To Waste, Fraud, And Abuse,” was released jointly by the nonprofit organizations Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools and the Center for Popular Democracy.
There are also other nuances that are part of this controversy. Other things that are controversial in and of themselves that are inevitably part of the charter school landscape. For example, the charter school concept was first created by a teacher’s union. However, most charters are not unionized while public schools are. So the “labor vs anti-labor” discussion often comes into play here. Racial issues are also becoming more prominent. In many places we are seeing segregation grow as charter schools grow. And in recent months the idea of school choice has become more and more political and polarizing. This is due to a few things including a possibility that federal funds could end up at religious schools calling into question our country’s strict policy of “separation of church and state.” There is also a difference of opinion on whether or not a school should be treated as a competitive business. Some believe this is the best method to increase quality. Other’s believe students shouldn’t be viewed or treated as products.
As you can see, there are many variables and nuances that make this a polarizing topic. There are many innovative schools in the country because of charters. There are also many situations that are causing harm to families. I’d love to know what you think and what your experiences have been. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. As for me? It’s about finding a balance between accountability and flexibility. It’s about finding that fine line. As my husband says “humans need just enough regulation to keep themselves honest.”