According the the California Charter Schools Association, there are close to 750 charter schools serving over 250,000 students in California alone. The number of charters has grown by about 50 per year over the past 10 years. Claims of superior student achievement, more funds plowed into classroom resources, and higher levels of parent satisfaction easily explain the growth. Legislators, governors, philanthropists, and both President Bush and President-elect Barack Obama see charters as the solution to massive educational malaise in this country. But if the charter school movement takes hold, it will dismantle public education as we know it.
What is a Charter School?
Simply stated, a charter is an application to a state to create and manage an alternative school. If the charter is granted, the school is given state moneys to operate, and it must demonstrate accountability in finances, management, and student learning in order to retain its charter. Although a charter school is held to certain legal standards that apply to all public schools, it can be unique in its educational philosophy or management strategies.
The charter school began with the idea of simplifying the district’s organizational structure to a relationship between teachers of a school and their local school board. Ray Budde’s idea was lifted into public discussion in 1986 when Albert Shanker, then head of the AFT, mentioned it in a speech at the National Press Club. Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991. Similar laws have been adopted in 40 states, which permit charters to pursue outside funding, but are restricted from charging tuition or hand-picking students. Unencumbered by local district requirements, charter holders claim they can employ best management practices to improve student outcomes. The results have been mixed.
Under No Child Left Behind, all schools face the challenge of meeting yearly targets. In California, for example, the API (Academic Performance Index) rates each school by averaging student scores on annual standardized tests (STAR) and the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). API scores range between 200 and 1000; the statewide target is 800. The STAR determines whether students are proficient or advanced in each of the major content areas. All 50 states have implemented similar accountability measures.
Out of the 110 high schools listed on the California Department of Education API list of schools, eight of them scored above 800. Four of those are magnet schools, and four of them are charter schools. There are many charter schools with APIs below 500, as there are many traditional schools. There is no clear predictor of success, be it charter or school size, although magnet schools do have a higher success rate than schools in other categories.
Charter schools are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, income level, or academic level with regard to admission. Charter schools with more applicants than space use a lottery system, much like magnet schools do, to provide equal opportunity for admission. Charters, like traditional and magnet schools, require that all teachers be credentialed in the subject they teach.
Although Charter schools may not discriminate, in fact, charter students have the advantage of parents who are able to meet the 35-hour volunteer requirement, and who advocate for them in other ways. Charters can and generally do cap class sizes at lower levels than traditional schools. Charters generally benefit from mass infusions of capital from philanthropists which afford such luxuries as a computer for every student. Charters are increasingly being run by CMOs–Charter Management Organizations–that specialize in efficiency and economy.
How Charters Affect Traditional Public Schools
Charters cite higher test scores and better graduation rates, but this can be attributed to several factors: higher levels of motivation in both students and parents, smaller class sizes, more resources for students, and state of the art management practices employed by CMOs. For each student leaving traditional public school, the money allocated by the state follows them to their destination.
Charter school teachers’ pay may be competitive with local district teachers’ pay, but their benefits lag behind those protected by the local district. As more non-union charters spring up, hiring generally younger teachers, the unions’ bargaining powers are weakened, and gradually those hard-won health care and retirement benefits are eroded.
The past 20 years public institutions have seen a trend in privatization of public institutions, such as prisons, hospitals and even military operations, often with mixed results. Public education has been viewed as a democratic ideal that promotes liberty and justice, equal opportunity for all. Before we allow it to be dismantled, we should carefully consider the consequences. When the public drains public schools by bringing their energies to private and charter schools, resourcefulness is required to reinvent those abandoned students and crumbling school sites.
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