In a peculiar bit of tone deaf political theater, President Barack Obama proclaimed this week as National Charter Schools Week – the same week that is already designated Teacher Appreciation Week. The proclamation signals this administration’s continued commitment for education reforms that are coming under increasing scrutiny and criticism, including charter schools.
Charter schools are public schools that operate outside of the control of local school boards and districts. Instead, they are organized around an operating charter that determines their management. Unlike traditional schools, they are not required to hire certified teachers, nor do they offer the same level of services to students, such as transportation and lunch for students who qualify. Students have to apply to attend, but tuition is free. Many charters are run by nonprofit organizations, though an increasing number are operated by for-profit organizations.
Unlike magnet schools which draw a critical mass of students for specialized education – or even like same-gender or special education charters which fill gaps traditional schools can’t address – most charters compete for the same students and duplicate the services of traditional schools.
That wasn’t the intent of the educators who dreamed them up years ago. Originally conceived as laboratory schools where teachers would be free to innovate, they have instead become a serious financial drain on traditional education without providing sufficient advantages to the children who attend them. The largest, most rigorous study of charter school effectiveness to date is the 2009 CREDO study from Stanford University. That study showed that while 17 percent of charters perform better on standardized tests than traditional public schools, 37 percent performed significantly worse, and the remainder scored no differently than traditional schools.
That’s a poor return on taxpayer money in another way as well. Students who attend charters take with them the per-pupil expenditures that used to help their traditional schools. Proponents argue that traditional schools don’t miss the lost money because they now have fewer students to educate.
However, that argument ignores how education monies are spent. It costs the same to heat a school that houses 500 students as it does one with 495, for example. On the other hand, a handful of students leaving for charter schools can equal the salary of a teacher, and one less teacher means that every classroom is more crowded, that every student gets less attention.
Nor is the loss of revenue the only way traditional schools are harmed. In a recent article in Teachers College Record, professor of education and director of the National Education Policy Center Kevin Welner details various ways that charters control which children actually attend, getting around any rules about open enrollment. Skimming high performers this way is a double loss, removing not only students but their committed and engaged parents.
My first experience with charter schools was when I spent some time observing at Amistad Academy in New Haven, Connecticut. Like the majority of charter schools, Amistad serves poor urban children, most of them minorities. A middle school with grades 5-8, the school was highly regimented, the children coached in everything from how to walk silently in the halls to how to make eye contact with a teacher.
The school day lasted from breakfast to supper, offering students a safe place in a neighborhood so blighted and dangerous that the administration warned me not to walk around in it. Mental health professionals were onsite and teachers worked hard to make up for the deficits in attention and opportunity that hampered their students’ academic success.
Yet I saw evidence of charter “churn,” too. Many of the teachers were inexperienced, and few stayed long. That’s not unusual in charter schools, where the attrition rate of both teachers and students is far higher than in traditional schools.
The second time I got an insider’s view was when a fellow teacher went to work at a charter in Boston. Like Amistad, the school tried to make up for the deleterious effects of poverty with a highly scripted curriculum and intense data-tracking of test scores. Teachers whose students didn’t perform well on standardized tests were let go, often in the middle of the school year. Student infractions were punished with financial penalties – not looking a teacher in the eye, for example, might cost a student a dollar.
The staff turnover was incredibly high, but the student attrition was even higher. By the 8th grade, almost all of the boys were gone, judged too difficult to teach and counseled or driven out.
I understand why a parent might be tempted to send a child to a charter. I’ve also known parents who chose instead to stay and improve their traditional schools, working to insure that all children – not just their own – get an equitable education. Those are the people who should share Teacher Appreciation Week, the ones the president should have applauded this week.
Guest columnist Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C., and author of “Notes from a Classroom: Reflections on Teaching.” Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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