The Case Against Charter Schools
In light of a struggling public school system, policymakers have begun to look for alternatives to the traditional model of education. From this search emerged newfound support for charter schools among many politicians, but others still remain strictly opposed to their proliferation. Charter schools are a type of public school that receives government funding yet operates independently from the traditional state school system. Charter schools are hailed for their innovative curriculum generated because of the freedom they are given to pursue new teaching strategies but criticized for their lack of transparency and apparent discrimination.
Over the last two decades, overall charter school enrollment has increased from .4 million to over 3.1 million students. Under the Trump administration and Betsey DeVos's leadership, school choice was emphasized at all levels of government, with Trump calling it the "civil rights issue of our time." However, although the Republican party may be full force in their support of school choice, Democrats are skeptical. Among the most opposed leading Democratic candidates in the 2020 race were Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Sanders proposed to freeze federal funding for all new charter schools. This is certainly a new trend, as before the 2020 election cycle, "all but one of the top-tier presidential candidates has either been neutral or supported charter schools." Given that there is no widespread agreement within the Democratic party to oppose charter school legislation, charters will likely continue their gradual expansion.
While charter reform may not be on the legislative agenda in 2021, movements within the Democratic party alongside a 22 percentage point decrease in charter support within the Republican party since 2012 ensure the renewal of the debate on charter schools. It may then be time to reassert the strong case against charter schools.
Core Arguments in Opposition to Charter Schools
As aforementioned, charter schools operate under different rules than traditional public schools (TPS), they are only forced to abide by the regulations included in their charter contract. The problem being states rarely conduct investigations to ensure that charter schools comply with their obligations, often resulting in the circumvention of proper procedure. Case in point, charter schools manipulate enrollment processes to recruit the smartest students and the kids easiest to teach.
Charter schools are, by law, required to implement a lottery system for student admissions if they receive more applications than they have spots in their classes. But laws on the book mean nothing if they are not enforced, as is the case with charter school enrollment decisions. Charter schools implement strategies both before and after application in order to enroll top students.
Applications to most charter schools are intended to dissuade all but the most motivated families from applying to the institution. This is done by creating unnecessarily lengthy application forms and procedures to limit applications from families unwilling or unable to dedicate the time necessary to complete these forms. While lengthy applications themselves exclude many low-income applicants, complicated language and additional fees discourage children with uneducated parents from applying. Moreover, charter applications target minority populations by creating English-only application forms, inhibiting children of non-English-speaking and immigrant parents from attending.
Many of these policies are in clear violation of state laws regarding charter school application and enrollment procedures. The Southern California Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) investigated 1,000 of the state's charter schools' application policies. They found that roughly a quarter of them (250 schools) followed policies "in violation of state law that . . . exclude some types of students." The policies largely select against students of lower-income or with non-English-speaking parents in a variety of ways.
While application difficulties are the norm in restricting certain applicants, some schools have resorted to much more creative strategies, including not providing subsidized lunches to discourage low-income applicants, mandate parents of students do unpaid volunteer work for the school, and, in one extreme example, invest in the company that built the school.
But even in the rare case that these policies fail to discourage lower-tier applicants, charter schools show little hesitation to handpick the students they deem easiest, aka cheapest, to educate. This means that "charter schools handpick students with higher test scores and academic records." And if the school picks the wrong candidate, they resort to "counseling out" or expelling low-performing students to inflate the school's test averages.
Intended to be an alternative for low-income students in areas where the traditional public school system is failing, these policies are all evidence that charter schools instead are only there to further constrain resource-lacking districts to benefit middle to upper-income, English-speaking students. Not only do these policies create greater resource scarcity in surrounding districts, but the departure of high-performing students generally harms the students left behind, as demonstrated by lower math and reading scores from the remaining students.
A leading source of struggle in the traditional public school system is a chronic lack of financial resources. The constraint results in lower educational outcomes by limiting teachers' access to materials, increasing the student-to-teacher ratio, and creating overcrowded classrooms. This struggle has been exacerbated in many ways by pressures imposed on the traditional public school system by charters.
Increasing charter enrollment causes a direct decrease in funds allocated for TPS, for public school funding is based on student attendance. When a student leaves their public school for a charter-based option, their state funding follows them. When a new charter school opens, it must pull students away from the traditional public school system to fill its classrooms. Thus, the chronic overbuilding of charter schools results in massive revenue cuts for public schools in the same area.
This would not be a problem if school districts could reduce their operational expenses in proportion to the lost revenue- but unfortunately, this is not the case. Schools incur several fixed costs, chief of which are the costs of maintaining equipment and buildings, which cannot be marginally reduced as each student leaves. Meaning, the public school system can't simply shut off entire wings of schools or schools of districts to recoup lost revenue. Furthermore, schools can also not meaningfully reduce their second largest cost source, salaries, as students leave for charter schools. "If, for instance, a given school loses 5% of its student body—and that loss is spread evenly across all grade levels—the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher." An analysis of a Pennsylvania school district facing competition from charters shows that districts are often unable to recoup even 20% of the money lost to charter schools in the first year. Even given five years to adjust, districts could not be expected to recover any more than ⅔ of lost revenue.
Some being for-profit, charter districts have found additional means of taking funds from traditional public schools. Their favorite method? Exploiting discrepancies in funds allocated for neurotypical and special education students. Public schools, both traditional and charter, are granted more state funding for special education students because of the increased costs of educating students with different needs. Using some of the cam techniques mentioned in the previous section, charter schools enroll special education students with disproportionately mild needs but still receive the full funding. This leaves traditional public schools to serve the children with the greatest needs with substantially less funding.
Consequently, researchers at Duke University concluded that, in communities that have experienced substantial charter growth, "local districts had . . . $1,500 [less to spend] per . . . student." As previously noted, charter schools are concentrated in urban, less affluent communities. This observation is especially problematic as charters' growth helps drive the collapse of urban school districts nationwide. Operating two systems in a shared space and absent fair competition is simply less efficient and creates a division of resources that disproportionately harms low-income and minority students.
A central contention of pro-charter advocates is that specialized schools provide better academics and educational outcomes. But the "innovative" curriculum is only as good as the teachers administering it.
Charter education is undercut by high teacher turnover rates or the rate of teacher circulation year over year. The higher the turnover rate, the general decrease in quality of education as students lose educational days. The loss of a single teacher is linked to a loss of 72 instructional days.
Charter schools suffer from much higher teacher turnover rates than traditional public schools due to the long hours and lower pay associated with working at a charter school. As a result, "charters lose 24 percent of their teachers each year, double the rate of traditional public schools." The implications are two-fold.
The first is in regards to funding. Already a substantial drain on TPS funding, charters' high turnover rate means that money that should be directed to other parts of the public school system is being wasted within charters. The Graide writes that "experts estimate that each teacher who leaves costs . . . as much as $21,000 in urban districts." This means that within charters, students are receiving lackluster education as substantial portions of revenue are spent solving the issues created by the charter structure itself. But with reference to previous sections, this represents a further diversion of resources from needy public schools, exacerbating the resource scarcity that is a day-to-day struggle for many students.
The second is in regards to educational outcomes. Generally, students in districts suffering from higher turnover scores lower in math and English sections of standardized testing. In fact, "eliminating teacher turnover '[increases] student achievement in math by . . . 4 percent.'" To be clear, this makes plenty of sense. When mid-year turnover occurs, it "'disrupts the continuity of a child's learning experience'" inhibits meaningful teacher-student relationships, and introduces incongruity in both curriculum and teaching style.
Addressing Common Arguments in Support of Charter Schools
Often cited in support of charter schools are the marginally higher test scores than their students produce. While initially, this evidence is convincing support for charters' claims of innovative curriculum and specialized teaching, there is much to be skeptical about.
Chiefly is that, with a particular reference to the previous mention of selection tactics, charter schools don't generate better curriculum; they attract better students – in a few ways. First, the decision to seek out a charter education in the first place is indicative of a family and student that values education as they are trying to pursue what they believe are "better" options. Second, and more importantly, charters deliberately pick top educational applicants to increase their academic outcomes.
Meaning, while charters have overall higher averages on academic outcomes, it is not a result of their time at the charters that their students score higher than average. As a combination of recruiting tactics and the inherent distinctions within charter applicants, research indicates no difference in academic trajectories between students who "won the lottery" and those who lost the lottery and returned to traditional public schools. This means that a student's decision to apply to a charter school has a more significant statistical input on their academic outcomes than actually receiving a charter education.
Educational Opportunities for Minority/Low-Income Students
Pro-charter politicians and pundits have hailed this narrative. The idea that charters allow low-income or minority students to "escape their zip code" and pursue educational opportunities they would have otherwise had no access to. But in many cases, the benefits of charter education for minority and low-income students are muted by malpractice, and in some cases, are much worse than the alternative of traditional public schools.
In terms of socioeconomic justice, charters increase economic segregation, which is associated with weak schooling opportunities. This is primarily due to the detraction of resources that occurs when higher-income students, those preferred by the application process, leave the traditional public school system to pursue a charter education.
Proponents of charters may argue that "race-matching," or having a teaching population representative of the student population by encouraging minority teachers, promotes racial equity through charters. Not only do the high rates of teacher turnover any benefits presented by "race-matching," but charters overall increase racial segregation. When compared to public schools, the rate of racial segregation within charters is "extraordinarily high."
Finally, charters tend to discriminate against disabled students as well. Not only do charters avoid high-need special needs students, but charter schools also discourage all special needs kids from joining the schools, meaning that the potential benefits of charter education for special needs students are rarely realized.
The main argument in favor of charters is that the freedom they have from state-sanctioned curriculum allows them to implement innovative teaching strategies. However, the lack of oversight previously mentioned means that there is no incentive to implement innovative strategies properly. More importantly, if these strategies are deemed effective, then there should be funds dedicated to traditional public schools to engage in this innovation. But the funding drain posed by increasing charter schools inhibits this development and prevents 71% of all students from accessing this innovation.
Charter schools represent an attempt to fix flaws that are persistent, yet not inherent, within the traditional public school system. These problems are created by a lack of resources and attention, both of which are only exacerbated by the increasing presence of charter schools. Even if the argument that charter schools provide students with better education is accepted, this is not enough to make a case for their existence. Charters serve but 5% of the total student population, while traditional public schools are responsible for more than 80% of all students. Even if the benefits to charter school students are immense, they surely cannot be worth equal detriments to a student population twenty-times the size. For the foreseeable future, the case for charter schools will continue to fall short.