Grade for charter schools? 'Needs improvement'

Without safeguards, they could become martyrs in the reform movement, instead of pioneers.

With the start of the fall semester upon us, President Obama has made charter schools the mainstay of his education reform movement. Although such schools are heavily promoted, concerns need to be addressed before their potential to shape a new course in US education can be fairly evaluated.

Charter schools represent a compromise for taxpayers who are frustrated over the glacial pace of improvement by public schools despite the expenditure of $667 billion on K-12 education last school year, up from $553 billion the prior year.

Publicly financed but operating free of many of the regulations applying to traditional public schools, they have grown in popularity since the first charter school began in Minnesota in 1991. They now total 4,600 nationwide and educate some 1.4 million of the nation's 50 million public school students.

Yet despite the claims made by supporters, a study released in June by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., casts doubt on whether the academic performance of students in charter schools is any better overall than that of their peers in regular public schools.

Though some states did have better overall results than others, researchers found nearly half of the 2,403 charter schools across the country involved in the study have results no different from regular public schools. In fact, more than a third of the charter schools posted results significantly worse. Only 17 percent provided superior educational outcomes. Advocates of charter schools assert that the study was slanted, but offer no convincing supporting evidence.

Whatever potential charter schools have to improve their performance will be affected by increasing pressure to unionize.

Because most of the nation's charter schools operate without unions, they have been free to innovate by lengthening the school day and year, dismissing ineffective teachers at will, and implementing merit pay. But disaffected by the long hours, high turnover, and lower pay than in other public schools, teachers are beginning to unionize.

Despite pessimism, Los Angeles has shown that a successful partnership between charter schools and teachers unions is possible. Over the past decade, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, has allowed the Green Dot Public Schools organization to run 12 charter schools in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. These were schools that had been largely written off. But a qualified turnaround seems to be emerging.

What makes the arrangement unusual is that Green Dot is the only large charter organization in the country that embraces unionized teachers. As a result, if Green Dot provides further evidence of its success in operating chronically failing schools, it could become a model.

In recent weeks, in part because of urging from Washington, several states have lifted their restrictions on charter schools. Tennessee, for example, raised the number of charter schools allowed from 50 to 90. Illinois doubled the number permitted to 120, and Louisiana abolished its cap. Charter school advocates charge that teachers' unions are largely responsible for obstacles to future growth. But a more likely explanation is that sloppily administered schools can harm students and undermine taxpayer confidence in the entire process.

California learned this lesson in 2004. The California Charter Academy, the largest chain of publicly financed but privately run charter schools, slid into bankruptcy after mismanaging money, leaving 6,000 students with no school to attend.

To guard against recurrence, reformers recommend the establishment of multiple independent authorizers with a proven record of academic results. Without that kind of safeguard in place, charter schools could become martyrs in the reform movement, instead of pioneers. That would be a severe setback for quality education.

Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the UCLA Graduate School of Education.


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