Are Charters smarter? That was the question that my friend, Peggy Brooks-Bertram asked me recently. Certainly, individuals who advocate for educational “reform” promote the idea that not only are charter schools superior to public schools but that they are the answer to turning around “failing” public schools. Some even suggest that charters create competition that somehow will spur public schools to do better. While Peggy’s question was a simple one, the answer is anything but simple. Across this nation, there is a movement, supported by political leaders, business leaders, reformers and others to control the educational system (and by no small coincidence billions of educational dollars) by privatizing public education and promoting the “charters are smarter” credo.
One of the arguments that makes the response to Peggy’s question complex is the often repeated statement that charter schools are “public” schools. In New York State, they are licensed by the State Education Department or the State University. And they do operate, to some degree, as a public entity. They are funded primarily by public dollars. Charters receive tuition, from the public school district, for every child who enrolls in the school. Further, services like transportation, food and some services for special needs children are paid for by the public school district. Public school detractors are quick to point out that the per pupil tuition that charters get is much lower than a “comparable” per pupil expenditure for students in the public schools. They fail to extract the legacy costs, e.g. debt service on loans for school building upgrades or staff retirement and health care costs.
Charters can be operated by non-profit organizations or for-profit management firms. In either case, they can raise additional funds through independent fundraising. Unlike public school districts, full disclosure of all monies that charters obtain is not required by the State. In the last decade the popularity of charters has resulted in an increasing number of for-profit schools established more or less as businesses. These “public” schools are also governed by private boards, instead of publicly elected or appointed district school boards. This is not to say that all charters aren't transparent, but there are numerous incidents, across this country, of charters that have been mis-managed and/or de-frauded by their operators. It’s a problem that charter advocates choose to ignore.
Let’s take a closer look at the argument that charters are “public” schools, which serve public school students. Charter schools do provide an alternative to parents for educational choice. Charters do not charge individual parents tuition since the taxpayers are paying that tuition. But charters schools also have choice in the admissions process they use to select students. A valid criticism of charters is that, in many cases, their student body does not mirror that of their public school counterparts. The number of students with disabilities, limited English Language proficiency and students living in poverty make up a smaller percentage of charter populations than students in the public schools. Charters can mold a more successful student body by sending children, who do not meet their standards, back to the public schools. And in a disturbing report recently issued by the Civil Rights Project of UCLA, researchers found that “…the rapid growth of charter schools has been expanding a sector that is even more segregated than the public schools.” (Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards)
But to get back to the question, “Are charters smarter?” There are examples of charter schools in Buffalo that are preforming no better, and in comparison to some of our “failing” schools, worse on student proficiency measures. That will be the subject of a separate article. However, there is a dramatic example of charter schools not being smarter in the city of New Orleans. Following the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, the State of Louisiana established the Recovery School District. Systematically, the public schools were closed in New Orleans and were replaced by charter schools. The New Orleans Recovery School District is now fully comprised of charter schools. In the process over 7,500 teachers and other professionals, mostly people of color, were fired. The result of this great experiment? In 2014, the New Orleans Recovery School District ranked 66th out of 70 school districts in the State of Louisiana! That is not an accomplishment. Yet, even in the face of this fact, the New Orleans Recovery School District is held up as a change model for public school districts across this nation. The moral of this story is that lies are being perpetrated to obscure the true answer to the question, “Are charters smarter?”
Are charters smarter? The Governor appears to think so. The Chancellor and the New York State Board of Regents seem to think so. The power-brokers, businessmen, foundations and the media continue to beat the drum on this message. All are supporting the creation of new charters across the state and especially here in Buffalo, where we have more charters than any urban district outside of New York City. We need to examine the facts. We need to understand the role that the new Common Core Standards and standardized testing has on school and school district success. We need to raise questions about the continued denigration of public schools and here I will say, especially the Buffalo Public Schools, to the exclusion of many of the positive and progressive accomplishments that are taking place.
This article does not condemn ALL charters as obviously there are successful charters providing educational opportunities to students in urban districts. But like the public schools, there are charters that are not successful. Are they then the answer to the problems we are having in our educational system? Are charters smarter? The answer my dear Peggy is, NO!