Five myths about charter schools

Two Rivers Public Charter School first graders listen during the weekly school 
community meeting seated on the floor in the common area known as The Green on 
April 11, 2012 in Washington, D.C. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST) 
By Emma Brown October 14 at 3:00 PM 
They’re in demand among parents who say traditional public schools have failed 
— but they’re not always successful. Their intense rate of growth has fueled an 
equally intense debate about the role they’ll play in the future of U.S. 
education. Advocates see their expansion as evidence that parents have a huge 
appetite for school choice. Critics see the beginning of the end of public 
education, with systems of neighborhood schools replaced by independent, 
privately run companies without the same obligation to teach the toughest 
students. A great deal of confusion surrounds charter schools. Here are some of 
the myths.

Myth No. 1
Charter schools
are everywhere.
At its national convention this year, the NAACP called for a moratorium on 
charter school expansion. The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a union-backed 
coalition, demands: “Stop flooding our communities with under-performing and 
unaccountable charter schools.” The charter debate is front and center in the 
education reform wars, and you’d think that they’re everywhere — a wave 
overtaking every community.

Yes, the charter movement is growing. And charters have a significant market 
share in an increasing number of cities, with New Orleans (where 93 percent of 
students attend charters) leading the way, followed by Detroit (53 percent), 
Flint, Mich., (47 percent) and Washington (44 percent). Forty-three states and 
the District have laws allowing for charter schools.

But in many parts of the country, charters are few and far between. About 3 
million students are enrolled in approximately 6,800 charters, according to the 
National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. That’s only about 6 percent of 
all public school students. Eight states have no charter schools, and five have 
fewer than 10. The debate is loud, but the market share is still small.

Myth No. 2
Charters are the brainchild of union-busting billionaires.
Critics of charter schools often accuse philanthropists — including Microsoft 
founder Bill Gates, entrepreneur Eli Broad, hedge fund manager John Arnold and 
the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune — of fueling the rise of 
charter schools and other reform projects as a way to promote free-market 
ideology and undermine teachers unions. In Salon early this year, Diane Ravitch 
(a George H.W. Bush-era federal education official who has become perhaps the 
nation’s most voluble charter critic) railed against Gates for using his wealth 
to push charters in Washington state. In the Huffington Post, Bill Bigelow 
argued that Charles and David Koch are involved with school reform because 
“they hate public schools.” 

It is true that deep-pocketed foundations have played a key role in the 
expansion of charter schools, through contributions to charters themselves and 
to the ecosystem of organizations that work with such schools. But charters 
were originally the brainchild of teachers union stalwart Al Shanker, who 
served as president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997. 
Shanker proposed charter schools in 1988, arguing that they would give small 
groups of teachers a way to dream up new methods of reaching the students for 
whom traditional schools were not working. Their successes and failures would 
hold lessons for other schools striving to improve. The first charter school 
opened in Minnesota in 1992.

Some charters have acted as Shanker envisioned, but in many states they 
haven’t, rejecting requirements for teacher certification or barring 
collective-bargaining rights. Driven by a vision of market-based reform, 
charters have become not laboratories so much as competition meant to either 
spur traditional schools to improve or replace them. Just a few years after 
proposing charter schools, Shanker largely disavowed them, holding instead that 
schools would get better only by standardizing their goals — the same theory 
that underlies today’s controversial Common Core state standards .

Myth No. 3
Charters are better than traditional schools.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is a big fan of expanding school 
choice via vouchers and charters. “We will rescue kids from failing schools,” 
he told the GOP convention in July. Books, articles and documentaries like 
“Waiting for ‘Superman’ ” have created in the popular imagination a picture of 
charter schools with impossibly long waiting lists, offering an escape to 
children desperate for a better education in neighborhoods beset by crumbling 
traditional schools.

While it is true that some charter schools outperform traditional schools, it 
is also true that many charter schools fail. The Center for Research on 
Education Outcomes (CREDO) has produced a series of studies comparing academic 
results at charter and traditional schools. In 2013, CREDO found no difference 
nationally between traditional and charter schools in math, while in reading, 
the average charter school student gained the equivalent of an additional eight 
days of learning per year. 

But there was wide variation. Among the charters CREDO studied, 31 percent were 
significantly weaker in math than their traditional school counterparts, 29 
percent were significantly stronger and 40 percent showed no real difference. 
CREDO studies also show variation across state lines. In cities, charters tend 
to fare better: The average student in an urban charter school gains the 
equivalent of 40 more days of learning in math and 28 additional days in 
reading. But the average charter student in Texas and in Ohio — a state that 
has been notorious for allowing poor-performing charters to persist — learns 
less in math and reading each year than her peers in traditional schools. 

Myth No. 4
Charter schools are public. Or private.
In August , a National Labor Relations Board majority ruled that a charter 
school in Brooklyn “was not established by a state or local government” and 
was, therefore, “not itself a public school.” The board’s lone dissenter argued 
that “charter schools operate as K-12 public schools” and should be treated as 
such since “they are substantially regulated under state and local laws, and 
they are overseen by state and local authorities.” This is one of education’s 
more bitter feuds, a semantic battle that underlines how important public 
education is to our nation’s notion of itself. Advocates insist that charter 
schools are public because they are tuition-free and equally open to all 
children. Critics argue that charters are at the leading edge of an effort to 
privatize public education in the same way other government functions, such as 
prisons, have been outsourced to private companies.

Neither side is entirely right. Charters are a hybrid, and judges and 
regulators have struggled to figure out how they should be treated under the 
law. “Courts have had a difficult time determining their legal status because 
they exhibit both public and private characteristics,” researchers wrote in a 
University of Massachusetts Law Review article last year. When charter students 
in Colorado, for instance, set a fire that destroyed private property, the 
property owners sued the school for negligence. The school argued that it was a 
public entity and therefore immune. A federal judge agreed, finding that the 
school’s autonomy did not make it a private institution. 

Often, the public- or private-ness of charter schools depends on state law. In 
many states, for example, charter schools are subject to sunshine laws, meaning 
their records and board meetings are open to the public. But not everywhere: In 
the District, for instance, charters are exempt from sunshine laws, which means 
journalists and parents often cannot access even basic information about how 
the schools spend taxpayer money.

Myth No. 5
All charters employ zero-tolerance discipline.
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Many of the nation’s most heralded charter school networks were built as “no 
excuses” schools that practice a broken-windows approach to discipline. 
Children are expected to abide by strict rules — walking in silent lines, 
eating silent lunch, sitting up straight, maintaining eye contact with teachers 
as they move about the room — and are punished for even small infractions. The 
suspension rate among charters nationally was 16 percent higher than among 
traditional schools in the 2011-2012 school year, according to the Civil Rights 
Project at UCLA. 

But it has never been the case that all charter schools subscribe to the 
no-excuses, zero-tolerance philosophy. In the District in 2011-2012, the same 
year that charter schools were 72 times more likely than the traditional school 
system to expel a student, there were six charters that issued zero suspensions 
or expulsions, and 15 others that issued five or fewer. 

Lately — amid growing concern over feeding the school-to-prison pipeline with 
expelled students, and over producing graduates ill-equipped to deal with the 
freedom and responsibility of college life — there’s been a shift even among 
some stalwarts of the no-excuses approach. At Ascend charter schools in New 
York, kids no longer get in trouble for wearing socks that are the wrong color. 
In the District, charter schools’ suspension and expulsion rates are dropping. 
Some KIPP schools now use restorative justice, which prioritizes working 
through problems over doling out punishment. Even Education Secretary John King 
Jr. — whose charter school in Boston is known for both its high test scores and 
high suspension rates — delivered a speech this summer calling on charter 
leaders to rethink their approach to discipline.

Twitter: @emmersbrown 

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