The Multiple Choice Question: Do Charter Schools Work?

Feb 7, 2012Amy Baral

Charter schools give students options they might not otherwise have, but they don't negate our responsibility to provide a quality education to all.

As I've explained in previous posts, inter-district and intra-district school choice programs work by creating choices from the existing schools in a school district. A different approach to school choice is the charter school movement.

As most know, charter schools operate as unique public schools within a school district. Unlike intra and inter-district school choice where the schools students attend are just the regular public schools in the district, charter schools are completely independent. Charter schools operate through a charter from the state government, although they receive their per-pupil funding from the school district where they are located. Because they are not controlled by the school district, they are given vast freedoms in return for higher standards of accountability.

Proponents of charter schools highlight the combination of freedom and accountability that they are provided. That allows them to experiment and innovate in ways that are tailored to meet the needs of the student population. As a result, many charter schools have implemented programs such as extended school day, extended school year, tutoring sessions, required athletic sessions, and hands-on experiences. The Harlem Children's Zone's charter schools exemplify this phenomenon. Faced with their students' limited access to health care services, the Promise Academy opened up the Harlem Children's Health Project to provide access to free medical services for its students.

While most charter schools operate based on similar principles -- high expectations, choice, more time, power to lead, and focus on results (derived from KIPP's "Five Pillars") -- not all charter schools are created equal. Opponents of charter schools worry that the choice created by charter schools is not a choice at all. While the accountability mechanisms in place for charter schools do work to close schools that do not meet their legally mandated goals, opponents note that many charter schools perform on par or worse than their public school counterparts. As CREDO's study notes, on math tests, 46 percent of students in charter schools performed on par with their public school peers, while 37 percent performed worse. Still, 63 percent of charter schools are performing at or above the level that public schools are performing.

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Finally, there's the issue of segregation. Charter schools in urban districts serve an overwhelmingly poor and minority student population, and there is often a higher proportion of poor and minority students in charter schools than in the district overall. This has led some to note that charter schools are creating de facto segregation based primarily on race. Yet while some charter schools cater to specific populations -- a German charter school, for instance, or a bilingual charter school -- this is certainly not a return to life before Brown v. Board of Education. Because charter schools are public, they must accept all students that apply for spots in their classrooms (unless there are too many applications, in which case a lottery must be held). Further, the population of a charter school most often reflects the population of the school district in which it's located. Segregation in schools is a problem, but charter schools are not exacerbating this problem -- they are simply trying to provide a high-quality educational choice for students who may have no other option.

The question this debate boils down to is about choice. If a student's option is to go to a failing public school or take a chance at a charter school with innovative programs, which choice do you think they would make? Parents and students would often rather take a chance with a new and innovative educational program than continue at the same public school that has led to few educational achievements. Charter schools, like inter-district and intra-district school choice, provide an additional educational option for students who have no other choice but to attend public school.

Still, this choice is not enough. Some charter schools have created innovative and effective programs to increase student achievement and success. Other charter schools have failed. But charter schools are not perfect and they certainly are not a panacea for educational issues. In pushing for high-quality school options for all children, the debate shouldn't be about the pros and cons of charter schools, but rather about ensuring that every child has access to a high-quality education. School choice programs, such as intra and inter-district school choice and charter schools, expand educational options for student and families who may have no other choice of schools. But in order to ensure that every child has access to a high quality education, the broader focus should be on widespread public school improvement and reform.

Amy Baral is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow performing legal and policy research on the Boston Public Schools, focusing on access to quality education and school choice. She is also a 1st year law student at Boston University School of Law.

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