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Public, Charter and Private Schools

Is The Jury Still Out On Charters?

In September of 1992, City Academy High School opened in St. Paul, Minnesota, thereby kicking off the charter school movement that has flourished in American education ever since. 

Now, twenty-one years later, more than 2,000,000 students, or 4.2% of all those enrolled in preK-12 schools, attend more than 5,600 charters in 41 states and Washington, D.C.   
What exactly is a charter school? Charters walk the slippery tightrope between public and private education. On the face of it, they are public schools receiving public funding. A group wishing to start a charter files a statement of intention with a local school district, outlining the proposed school’s goals. The local board then votes aye or nay on the charter request. Because charters receive public funding, they may not require tuition, though private organizations may manage them. They are accountable to their local school boards, yet paradoxically, they also function with some of the autonomy of private schools. As alternatives to traditional public education, charters have more freedom in matters of hiring and curriculum, and they are generally not subject to the same regulations and codes of conduct.  
Some states, such as Arizona and Michigan, allow existing private schools to convert to charter schools if they meet certain requirements, such as having open and nondiscriminatory enrollment and a reasonable percentage of newly admitted students (at least 25% in Michigan, for example).  Other states, such as California, do not allow existing private schools to become charters. 
The No Child Left Behind legislation, passed by Congress in 2001, made approval of charter schools an important component of its platform. According to 2012 Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup polls, 70% of Americans approve of charter schools, with 61% stating that students enrolled in them receive an “excellent” or “good” education (cited in the Huffington Post, September 4, 2012).
While a number of groups operate charter schools in Chicago—the University of Chicago, for instance, sponsors three—several organizations stand out: The Chicago International Charter Schools is the city’s largest operator, while KIPP, a nonprofit national network of free, open-enrollment college prep schools, and the Noble Network have prominent presences as well.  KIPP, an acronym for Knowledge is Power Program, operates four schools in Chicago for the K-8 population, enrolling over 1,000 students. (Nationally, KIPP operates 141 charters.) KIPP students must sign a “commitment to excellence” pledge, and KIPP claims that 91% of its students graduate from high school, and that 87% at least begin college (KIPP website). The Noble Network currently has fourteen high schools in Chicago, serving 8,800 students. The Noble high schools all have “College Prep” in their names, and they emphasize more classroom time, a longer school day, and a longer school year than the standard public high schools offer.  To the charge that they are “creaming,” or skimming the best students from the eighth-grade enrollment pool, the Noble Network responds that 98% of its student population is minority, 89% from low-income homes (Noble Network website). Michael Milkie, founder and executive director of the Noble Network, says that he and his wife, both former teachers, started the charter in 1999 with this philosophy: “If you sweat the small stuff, then you don’t have big issues” (quoted by Sarah Karp and Linda Lutton in a WBEZ feature story, November 9, 2010.) For this reason, the schools operate with strict codes of conduct.
How successful, really, are these charters? That is the salient question, and among educators, the whole charter movement remains deeply controversial. Many laud charters for their innovative and creative approaches, possible because of the greater freedom they have. Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City schools, has observed that charters create choice and competition, which he sees as desirable; they also have flexibility in hiring because their teachers do not necessarily have to be credentialed in the same way as standard public school teachers (video presentation, Huffington Post, February 2, 2011).  Arne Duncan, the present Education Secretary and the former superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, also supports charters. In a speech delivered in 2013, he called charters “incubators of innovation,” further asserting that “In rigorous, randomized studies, high-performing charters have shown that great schools close both opportunity and achievement gaps...Higher performing charters are one more proof positive that, as President Obama says, ‘The best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education’’’ (Education Department website).

Bruno Manno, a former assistant secretary in the Department of Education and now an educational adviser, argues the case for charters in a May 2001 article in The School Administrators.  Manno praises charters for filling some niches typically left vacant, citing in illustration the Metro Deaf Charter School in St. Paul, which enrolls only deaf students for K-6 education. It is now nationally recognized as a model for the education of deaf children.  To the frequent charge that charters are undermining traditional public schools, Manno replies, “The surest way to keep students from leaving district schools is by running schools that nobody wants to leave, not by barring the exit.”
Charters have numerous critics, however, the most high profile of whom is Diane Ravitch, now a professor of education at NYU, but formerly a member of the Education Department under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and formerly a supporter of No Child Left Behind.  Ravitch has written a new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, in which she asserts, “The world’s top-performing [education] systems—Finland and Korea, for example—do not have charter schools. They have strong public school systems with well-prepared, experienced teachers and administrators.”  It is her feeling that the charter movement is “aggressive and entrepreneurial,” and that either by failing to admit or by expelling difficult and special needs children, charters are forcing local neighborhood schools to educate more than their fair share of problem students (L.A. Times, October 1, 2012).  In truth, the U.S. Government Accountability Office did find that in 2009-2010, students with disabilities made up 11% of the enrollment in traditional schools, as opposed to 8% in charter schools (cited in the Huffington Post, September 4, 2012). 
As Professor Gary Miron of Western Michigan University has pointed out, this has sometimes led to a “re-segregation of public schools, by race, class, and ability, instead of creating homogeneous learning  communities based on particular learning styles and pedagogical approaches” (testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, June 1, 2011).  Miron calls for a more rigorous monitoring of charters. Nationally, only 3% of charter schools have been “de-chartered” since the movement began in 1992 (Huffington Post, December 6, 2012). Like Ravitch, Miron also decries the movement toward privatization in public education, pointing out that private education management organizations now operate one-third of the nation’s charters.
While there are undoubtedly excellent and successful individual charters across the country, it would appear that the jury is still out on the movement as a whole. Meanwhile, Ravitch’s most trenchant criticism of charters may be that they lure reformers into thinking they are improving education, distracting them from the underlying societal problems facing schools: “Academic performance is low where poverty and racial segregation are high. Sadly, the U.S. leads other advanced nations of the world in the proportion of children living in poverty” (L.A. Times).
In the final analysis, then, perhaps it boils down to Mark Twain’s ironic aphorism: “The lack of money is the root of all evil.”

Published: February 22, 2014
Issue: Winter 2014 Issue