June 3, 2016; Education Week Blogs, “Charters and Choice”

In 1991, Minnesota became the first state to transform an educational theory into practice when it enacted legislation allowing charter schools to become a part of its public school system. Since then, charters have grown into a central element of the nation’s education strategy. Currently, 43 states authorize independent charter schools, and there is significant federal investment in supporting and expanding their role as public education providers. As the 2016 school year closes, we find 6,800 charters teaching more than 3 million students, or about five percent of the public school population.

Twenty-five years later, it seems a fitting moment to look at how this experiment is playing out, learn from our national experience, and make any necessary course corrections.

Before there were charters, some were concerned that America’s public education was failing, unable to keep pace with changing times; like many old-line industrial organizations, public schools were seen as rigid and unable to support innovation and creativity. It was Professor Ray Budde, of the University of Massachusetts School of Education, who suggested a new form of public schools in 1974. He proposed the “transfer of real authority to schools, smaller schools, and the transfer of instructional responsibility to groups of teachers.” Years later, the idea was picked up by Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation Of Teachers, who suggested that teachers come together to start new, innovative schools.

Enter Minnesota. Ember Reichgott Junge, who, as a state senator, was coauthor of the first legislation, recently described what motivated her to move charters from idea to reality in an interview with Education Week: “The fundamental value of chartering is innovation [and] chartering provides the autonomy to do that.”

Creating an alternate framework, free from bureaucratic constraints, was a possible path for educational change. Good theory, perhaps, but how has it been doing after 25 years of practice?

Using standardized test results as our measuring rod, charter school performance does not show dramatic improvement when compared to traditional public schools. Within the growing body of research can be found studies that find charters doing better and others showing the exact opposite result. Even when they are found to be improving outcomes, though, the gap is quite modest:

In evaluating some of the statistical studies that seek to compare the performance of charter and public schools, recent investigations conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University reveal that students’ test scores may prove that public schools are now outperforming charter schools. The Stanford analysts compared reading and math state-based standardized test scores between charter school and public school students in 15 states, as well as scores in the District of Columbia. Experts found that 37 percent of charter schools posted improvements in math scores; however, these improvement rates were significantly below the improvement rates of students in public school classrooms. Furthermore, 46 percent of charter schools experienced math improvements that were “statistically indistinguishable” from the average improvement rates shown by public school students.

If we are not seeing dramatic performance improvement, are we seeing charters being the innovation engines they were conceived to be? Here, too, the results are inconclusive. The breadth of curricular focus and educational philosophy that can be found within the 6,800 charters is quite broad. Lots of old and new ideas are being tried. But it’s harder to judge which if any are real improvements. And because much of the innovation is occurring at a small scale and in autonomous organizations, it is quite unclear whether successful ideas have moved deeper into the wider public education system.

From this perspective, charters don’t seem to be meeting their original purpose. These benefits, modest at best over an extended period, have come at a great cost and have caused some unanticipated problems. Because they are designed to be semi-autonomous, charters have instituted what is effectively a set of parallel public education systems. One operates with a mandated responsibility to ensure every student has access to a high quality education; the other comprises independent schools responsible only for the students they enroll. With funding for public education strained and stretched, there is a painful inefficiency in supporting these two approaches, along with a lack of coordinated planning.

Unlike traditional public schools, charters can and do go out of business, leaving tradition school districts to pick up the pieces. Moreover, there’s ample evidence to indicate that some charters choose to serve only a selection of a district’s students, leaving the traditional school district to educate the most difficult and challenging students with resources that grow more and more limited. The strong desire to keep charters outside the traditional framework has left us dangerously close to two separate but unequal public school systems.

As charters have multiplied, we have seen a shift from small, locally managed nonprofit organizations to larger multistate networks of schools, many operating as for-profit businesses. Former State Senator Junge sees this as an unexpected but manageable outcome: “I don’t think I expected as many networks and management companies in chartering. I think many of them have been very helpful and very productive. Some have not been so helpful. I don’t want anyone to think that there is only one sector in chartering. There’s room for everyone. I just want them to succeed. If they are succeeding, they are getting results, then that’s fine.”

But even if the results were stellar, creating for-profit entities fully funded with tax dollars but operating without the public accountability of government bodies should be a bright red flag. Numerous charter operators have claimed they are immune to public record requests because they are private, not public, organizations. Their leadership is not directly accountable to local constituencies, as are traditional public schools.

Those who see limited government as desirable and the power of the marketplace as the key force for societal improvement have taken up the charters’ cause. With New Orleans as their model, they see the experiment as successful, a good reason to move forward at full speed, growing the role of charter schools in American education.

With 25 years of experience to judge from, the lack of strong outcomes and the seriousness of the unintended consequences are ample reasons to take a step back and reconsider how best to effectively spawn educational innovation. Charter schools may be one of the elements of reform we need to retain, but if so, they need to be more effectively integrated into a comprehensive approach to managing public education. Two parallel systems will not work. Private and for-profit schools will not protect the essential public component of public schools. If we do not learn these critical lessons from our experience, we risk doing great harm.—Martin Levine