What is a charter school?

In 2009 when I began the original Seattle Education blog, the first words that I typed were “What is a Charter School?”. With those words I began to write an account of what I had learned from reading everything that I could find on the subject. And why an interest in charter schools? Because at the time, several of us had discovered that our Seattle Public School superintendent was a Broad graduate. We had learned that the Broad Foundation was all about charter schools and that was on the agenda for Seattle and the state of Washington as far as Eli Broad and other reformers were concerned.

Now it’s almost 2012 and the ed reform forces have begun to gather and descend upon our state in an attempt to privatize our public school system.

I have received many questions about charter schools recently and decided to do a series of posts on the subject. First I’ll start with the words that I began writing over two years ago:

What Is a Charter School?

The basic difference between a traditional public school and a privately run charter school is that with a charter school there is complete control of the school by a private enterprise within a public school district. Although taxpayer-funded, charters operate without the same degree of public and district oversight of a standard public school. Most charter schools do not hire union teachers which means that they can demand the teacher work longer hours including weekends at the school site and pay less than union wages. Charter schools take the school district’s allotment of money provided for each student within the public schools system and use it to develop their programs. In many systems, they receive that allotment without having to pay for other costs such as transportation for students to and from the school. Some states, such as Minnesota, actually allocate more than what is granted to public school students.

A charter school can expel any student that it doesn’t believe fits within its standards or meets its level of expectation in terms of test scores. If the student is dropped off the rolls of the charter school, the money that was allotted for that student may or may not be returned to the district at the beginning of the next year. That is dependent upon the contract that is established by each district.

Also, according to a recent (June 15, 2009) study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), charter schools do not necessarily perform any better than public schools. In fact, 37 percent performed worse. Forty-six percent demonstrated “no significant difference” from public schools. Only 17 percent of charter schools performed better than public schools.

Well, not much has changed since then except for the fact that we have accrued more studies and articles showing that merit pay, high stakes testing, online learning, school closings and turnarounds as well as charter schools has been a tremendous waste of time, money and energy.

We are fortunate in the state of Washington because we can benefit from the accumulation of knowledge that has been developed on these subjects and not make the same mistakes that other states and school districts have made in buying into the notion of privatizing our school system.

Let’s start with the studies and reports:

The Stanford Center for Research in Education Outcomes (CREDO), Multiple Choice: Charter School Performance in 16 States issued in 2009:

The finding was that 17 percent of the charter schools had students who did better on the whole than their public school twins, 37 percent of the charter schools the students did worse, and in 46 percent there was no statistical difference.

The Stanford CREDO Report, Charter School Performance in Pennsylvania:

Overall, charter school performance in Pennsylvania lagged in growth compared to traditional public schools.

Performance at cyber charter school was substantially lower than the performance at brick and mortar charters with 100% of cyber charters performing significantly worse than their traditional public school counterparts in both reading and math.

Hispanic students enrolled in charter schools perform significantly worse than their peers in traditional public schools in both reading and math, while Black students in charter schools perform significantly worse in math that Black students in traditional public schools but similarly in reading growth.

The Mathematica Study of Charter School Management Organizations as described by Jim Horn in the Schools Matter article posted on November 6, 2011, New Charter Study by Mathematica With More Bad News for Corporate Ed Reform:

This new study released in Friday’s news dump, entitled “Charter-School Management Organization: Diverse Strategies and Diverse Student Impacts,” has more bad news for school privatizers who prefer the charter route.  Even though a swarm of urban school colonizers from Gates, Walton, and the New Schools Venture Fund helped set up the parameters for this study in order to get the most favorable outcome, and even though the Gates “research” hothouse, the Center for Reinventing Public Education co-authored the study,  there’s enough bad news for charter proponents that mirrors years of previous research on charters that this study, too, has been ignored by the corporate media.  Ed Week had a piece on the new study entitled “Academic Gains Vary Widely for Charter Networks,” and Time had a pre-release gloss by corporate spinner extraordinaire, Andy Rotherham.  That was it for coverage, except for a misleading and dissembling press release by Jim Peyser at the New Schools Venture Fund.  And only one of the national charter school associations offered a press release on this big event.  And most telling, the Gates “research” hothouse that co-authored the study, the Center for Reinventing Public Education, does not even mention it anywhere on its website.  Shhhh.

The National Education Policy Center study: Schools Without Diversity:

The analysis found that, as compared with the public school district in which the charter school resided, the charter schools were substantially more segregated by race, wealth, disabling condition, and language. While charter schools have rapidly grown, the strong segregative pattern found in 2001 is virtually unchanged through 2007.

A UCLA Civil Rights Project report issued in 2010, Choice Without Equity as described in a USC Annenberg news report UCLA Report Says Charters are Causing the Resegregation of American Schools:

UCLA Professor Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, said in a telephone press conference Thursday that the disproportionate representation of racial groups in the charter school system should be a red flag in the steady march of public education toward free-market mechanics–a march that has swept up Los Angeles Unified School District, which is just now reviewing creative management bids for 30 of its public schools.
“The charter movement has flourished in a period of retreat on civil rights,” Orfield said. “The vision of a successfully integrated society – one that carries real opportunities for historically excluded groups of students to enter the mainstream – ought to be a defining characteristic of charter schools. Federal policy should make this a condition for charter school support and should support other choice programs which pursue this goal.”

Regarding the Vanderbilt study on Instructional Conditions in Charter Schools and Students’ Mathematics Achievement Gains completed in 2010, an article in Vanderbilt News titled No Significant Difference in Math Achievement Gains Between Charter Schools, Traditional Public Schools .

New research based on preliminary data in a pilot study has found no significant difference in achievement gains on standardized math tests between students in charter schools and those in traditional public schools.

Vanderbilt University, The National Center on School Choice: Teacher Turnover in Charter Schools.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University found that charter school teacher turnover was almost double that of traditional public schools: 25 percent vs. 14 percent, respectively.

The study and the research brief.

That is the research that has been done over the last two years regarding charter schools.

What we need to do is to listen to principals and teachers, they will be able to tell us what works and what doesn’t work, what they need for their schools and students to succeed, not to billionaires who are not in touch with what goes on in a public school or in the surrounding communities. If you don’t believe me, go ask your principal what they believe their students need that they don’t have in terms of resources. I have a feeling it would be  a real eye-opener for many. Or, ask a teacher what they need in their school or classroom to enhance the learning experience for their students.

Of course the corporate reformers have demonized teachers and think that principals need to be little CEO’s rather than educators therefore the reformers have had no conversations with these professionals. The conversation has been among themselves and they have decided what’s best for the rest of us even if some of the studies that they have financed tells them differently.

Yesterday the TV was on and someone directed me to a segment on the Ellen Degeneres show. There was an interview with a principal at a school in Las Vegas that had a large population of homeless students. She was just about in tears when she explained how she stays up at night trying to figure out how to get her students to the point where they can learn. She spoke of hunger, lack of books and clean clothing as well as children who were sick and didn’t have the medicine they needed. It got my attention.

There was a generous donation, no strings attached, given by Target and a matching donation of $100,000 by Justin Biber. When the principal was asked what she would do with the first donation, she again almost broke down in tears and said it would be for a new library. She said that the shelves were too small for a standard book and that even though the “new curriculum” was now in place in her state that the teachers had to teach to, there were no books for the students that  was part of the new curriculum!!! There were no books that matched the new curriculum so exactly how were the teachers going to be successful on all of those standardized tests that would be coming next to determine their “effectiveness”?

The reformers have developed a Catch 22. If your school cannot succeed, and how can they when they have no funds, then it gets closed and turned into a charter school. That’s how our schools are becoming privatized. At least this small school in Las Vegas was given a fighting chance with outside help from people who asked for nothing in return.

“Just say no” to charter schools and “yes” to supporting, financially and otherwise, public education.

Dora

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