Hidden in the election news last week were two stories that prove bipartisanship isn’t dead. In Massachusetts and Georgia, voters of all stripes came together to defeat measures that would have greatly expanded charter schools.
In Massachusetts, Question 2 would have increased the number of charter schools approved annually. In Georgia, Amendment 1 would have established a statewide Opportunity School District run by a governor-appointed superintendent with sweeping powers to turn over schools to charter operators.
Supporters of charter schools argue they were designed to be independent public schools free to innovate. Opponents point out the reality has been very different.
Although they call themselves public schools, charters are managed by non-profit or for-profit organizations. They have less financial transparency than traditional schools, and stories of corruption and fraud have exploded as charters – particularly those run by for-profits – have expanded.
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Nor have charters as a whole offered academic benefits to students. The largest studies done by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) in 2009 and 2013 show younger students score moderately better in math and reading, but those gains disappear by high school.
A recent National Bureau of Economic Research study matched academic performance and later earnings of Texas students, concluding “charter schools have no impact on test scores and a negative impact on earnings.”
Attrition of faculty and students is also a problem at charter schools. A Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice study showed 40 percent of new charter teachers leave after their first year. Even the Equity Project Charter School in New York, offering significantly higher salaries to recruit “superstar” teachers, has test scores lower than the area average, with half of those teachers leaving after a year.
Worse is student attrition. While traditional schools have an open-door policy, charters have been criticized for discouraging difficult-to-teach students from applying or getting them to leave once enrolled. Some charter schools lose over half their students from the start of their program to the end.
Practically, charters make little financial sense. Running a parallel public school system drains students and financial resources from traditional schools, harming the children there. For example, the Adams-Cheshire Regional School District in Massachusetts has a $1 million budget deficit while the charter, Berskshire Arts and Technology Charter, siphoned $700,00 from the district in 2015 and $894,00 in 2016.
Statewide the measure failed 62- 38, but, unsurprisingly, where charters exist, the opposition was even higher.
In Georgia, a bipartisan coalition campaigned to defeat Amendment 1, despite the governor and general assembly’s support and the massive infusion of money from charter-friendly corporate reformers.
The key going forward is to maintain that rare bipartisan support to advance legislation helping traditional public schools, such as reducing high-stakes testing and investing in effective teacher mentoring and professional development. Most importantly, communities committed to their public schools’ health must work towards reducing child poverty. The Children’s Defense Fund, for example, has specific policy suggestions that should garner bipartisan support, such as increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit and offering childcare and housing subsidies. Only then will we see real progress in improving education.
Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.