Charter school data reveals they’re no better than public schools

The cacophony of parents talking about their great charter school is really disheartening. There is no evidence that charter schools work. And the reason for this is that no one knows how to reform schools effectively and charter schools are schools.

So before you put your child in a charter school, consider this data:

1. Charter schools are not inherently innovative.
There is widespread agreement that public schools don’t work. But charter schools are supposedly different. Except that Fast Company reports charter schools have done little to reform the problems inherent in public schools. “When you look around the country at the charter sector, they’ve been pretty absent from the conversation about innovative school design,” says Matt Candler, founder and CEO of 4.0 Schools, a nonprofit foundation for reform.

We have identified fear of unemployment (of teachers and administrators) as the driving force for decision makers in public education, and the same problem underscores the charter school movement. Candler says the question charter school professionals ask themselves most is, “Is the authorizer going to punish me if this model doesn’t work?'”

2. Charter schools have no record for success.
While public schools that are failing get shut down, there is no such system in place for charter schools. Many charter schools are in the bottom 15% of all schools, but they have no mandate to either get better or shut down.  Additionally, extensive government studies find there is no significant difference between fourth graders educated in charter schools and regular public schools.

The most successful charter schools are for young children and are based on a specific teaching philosophy, such as Montessori or Waldorf. However those schools succeed primarily because kids do not need school in the primary grades, and Montessori and Waldorf are based on play more than proscribed learning.

Additionally, those philosophies do not extend beyond grade school. For teens, magnet schools work better than other schools, because kids who specialize perform best as adults. In fact, it’s the specialized schools that routinely churn out the most successful students, but those school options don’t emerge until high school.

3. People with real choices don’t choose charter schools.
Giving people a false sense of choice undermines their whole participation in the system. And historically, the more you can make people feel like they have a choice, the more complacent they will be.

Once you tell yourself that your kids must be in school, you take the choice out of your children’s education. Because school is school. The range of schools is a range of false choices. What do people do who perceive they can choose anything? They take their kids out of school—from NYCto Hollywood, to Silicon Valley.

The only thing worse than having bad schools is having complacency about bad schools. That’s all our charter system is doing for public education.

20 replies
    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      There is a performing arts charter school near me that has “tuition” of $4000, yet this is a public charter school. Somehow they get around this by calling the tuition something else, and students are penalized by not being able to perform or something like that. So it really is a subsidized private school, yet they still maintain the same standards-based academics but add four hours of performance arts to the curriculum every day.

      • Julia
        Julia says:

        It’s called Annual Fund, and not only charter schools do it. Many noncharter public schools also “charge” this “tuition”. As public schools, charter schools cannot require parents to pay into the annual fund, and they don’t. Parents at charter and noncharter public schools are told when they apply that the Annual Fund is part of the fundraising structure and they are asked to contribute a certain amount. You live in a HCOL, so that amount is high. Typical for public and charter schools in my city is ~$1000, but a very HCOL town nearby has a school that notoriously requests $5000. Some parents contribute, some don’t, some contribute much less than the requested amount, as would be expected with any fundraiser.

  1. sheela
    sheela says:

    When I taught public high school a few years ago, the only student out of 40 who could write at length and coherently, who had been given high expectations for writing production, had just transferred from a charter school. His family was living on public assistance, but his writing kicked ass, and he read for pleasure, which no one else did. In my state, Massachusetts, charters for the most part outperform their non-charter counterparts, and have waiting lists hundreds of families long. They make college attendance and completion possible for thousands of kids who would otherwise be crammed into failing or mediocre schools. I am also astounded by what the New York KIPP school, on which the middle school I taught at in the Bronx was based, accomplished with their 100% low income, 100% minority population. Who cares about test scores. They are the only schools (that I have ever heard of) tracking how their kids end up after high school, if they finish college, what work they go into, and whether they are able to enter the middle class.

    • Julia
      Julia says:

      Yeah, the problem with the study of “charter schools” as an entity is that it’s like studying “theater productions” as an entity. The whole point of charter schools is that they are all supposed to be different, trying out different things to see what works and what doesn’t. And they are doing so in all different locations and circumstances. That’s why PT can point to a study that decries the broad failure of charter schools yet have an avalanche of anecdotal input from parents and teachers praising their charter schools. Those of us who praise charter schools have really seen them do wonderful things, providing alternatives in districts with little else to offer. Yes, there may be a lot of failure among the gargantuan corporate charter companies that have run roughshod all over the charter school landscape, but as the FastCompany article linked above points out, this is largely caused by the push back from the districts that don’t want innovative charters wreaking havoc on their bureaucracies. I’ve seen first hand the innovative grassroots inquiry-based charter school struggle against the district for approval while the huge mega corporate charter with bad curriculum ideas but plenty of $$ gets through no problem. But to say that charter schools are failing because you’re only looking at the dinosaurs is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There are really amazing charter schools doing excellent and innovative work. The system really needs those schools. And to the point of this column, homeschooling is also an important option for parents, but it isn’t for everyone. I see charter schools and homeschooling as collaborators in the fight against the stupid school system.

  2. Lynn
    Lynn says:

    In my area, charters are for middle class white people who can’t quite afford private schools but don’t want their kids in the dismal local public schools. They have amazing project-based STEM programs, chickens, veggie gardens, school fundraisers with concerts by local hipster bands, etc. The charters are full of kids from self-selected families with white collar parents who can provide transportation due to job flexibility or a SAHP (no buses), don’t need free or reduced cost lunches, and have no learning or behavioral issues (charters flatly state during tours that they don’t have the resources to deal with IEPs). If you can’t lottery in (and there are hundreds of applications for 25 spots) you go private or homeschool.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      This is the case in my area, as well. A few parents that I know don’t want to pay for private, though (even though, I think they could). And the typical saying is, “I’m so glad she got into the charter, phew.’ As if it solves something they can’t ultimately control. Again, this is also a mentality: A lot of families do not look at education as an investment, but rather a necessary ‘to-do’, another line-item in the list of life. It upsets me that we don’t have a system for mothers to really rely on in some way.

      I talk to so many moms when we are out, and the struggles are the same and defined. A lot of it could be solved and it will be. It’s just how and when.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        I like discussing all the options available to my children. In our area there is a Waldorf charter school, and I like the movement and arts & crafts, gardens etc. I personally don’t care what the school is ranked because the kids and parents are all happy in this subversive environment. My newly turned 6 year old cried the last time I mentioned school and my 8 year old has made it clear she is not interested. But it is nice that this school is actually doing something different than other charters who promote rigor, wear uniforms, and are just a hyped up version of regular school. That is how the majority of charter schools are in my area, nothing really special, different, or worth my time.

        We just keep going with self-directed learning and my kids make mental leaps regularly. Unschooling is freedom for our family and lifestyle, which allows us to live on our own schedule and agenda.

  3. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I don’t believe charter schools should be written off so quickly after reading and giving the referenced articles in this post some thought.
    Our society is one of the quick fix and of being lenient variety. School is school. However, there are many charter schools that are doing noticeably better than public schools. Why is that?
    Individual charter schools administered with sound business practices from their inception have a place in the education of children. It may not be optimum. However, if it’s better than current public schools, they should be given more opportunity. If they’re not performing to certain standards within a reasonable and agreed upon timetable, then their funds need to be curtailed and allowed to become private. Charter schools can be viewed as incubators to large public schools where newer ideas in education such as project-based learning could be allowed and with a parent’s consent. The K-12 years of a child is 13 years. Rather than look at metrics of a given charter school, wouldn’t it be nice to have a more relevant longitudinal study of individual students in different charter school models over a 20 or 30 year time span? How about giving parents a choice with clearly stated risks and rewards from the outset? There has to be more personal responsibility taken from both the parents and the kids in my opinion.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      An argument could be made that actually having poor “metrics” indicates that the charter schools are not teaching to the test. Maybe that is a good thing.

  4. Mary Gray
    Mary Gray says:

    The arguments against charters here are pretty weak. Point #1 “Charter Schools are not inherently innovative” is supported by exactly one quote by one random school reformer.
    Point #2 is just outright false. Charters are far more likely than public schools to shut down if they are not performing. The link about the charter school in the bottom 15% not shutting down was pretty misleading. The article mentions a charter school in an inner city that is performing in the bottom 15% of the STATE….but if all the other public schools in the CITY are performing in the bottom 5%, why would you shut it down?

    The bottom line is that parents — especially those in the inner cities — WANT to enroll their kids in charter schools. Like another poster mentioned, many charters have waiting lists a mile long. They are desperate for some “real choices” and to deny them that choice is flat out immoral.

  5. Aquinas Heard
    Aquinas Heard says:

    Charter schools are still public schools. They just have a little bit less regulation. So their “results” should not be fundamentally different from typical public schools. Both rest on forced funding. Both assume compulsory attendance laws.

    Aquinas Heard

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      You’re right, it’s really a false choice that preys on parents desires for better educational opportunities. It’s not a choice at all because the child HAS to be there.

  6. LJM
    LJM says:

    I haven’t been here in a while because Ms. Trunks essays are often filled with hyperbole and baseless assertions. So, right out of the gate,

    There is no evidence that charter schools work.

    For every student who is thriving and enjoying their charter school, it works. That’s not all kids at charter schools, but it’s plenty of them.

    Like all schools and all approaches, charter schools are not going to work for all kids. But saying that “charter schools don’t work,” is as grounded in reality (and blinded by ideology) as saying “homeschooling doesn’t work.”

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      In the context of our public education system needing a major overhaul (I mean, just look at the millennials) and other forms of education being proven to work better (self-directed), throwing the charter schools into the pot seems about right.

      Most kids are not happy in school. Go interview them. Ask them about the favorite part of their day. Masking it and labeling a charter ‘good enough’ because a few kids *seem happy there does not do anything to propel children’s futures and most importantly takes the focus off of what we could be doing for them. We are here agreeing that Charters are not ‘good enough’. Always start with the kids, then go from there.

  7. KT
    KT says:

    The public school I yanked my kids from consistently ranks as a 4-star school in my state. There are no charter schools available in my area. Even so, I agree that school is school and until there is a complete overhaul of the system in which everyone gets educated, not indoctrinated, homeschooling is still the best option.

    • Julia
      Julia says:

      What do you mean? Do kids in charter schools not count as kids?

      To kids in public non-charter schools, it does matter if charter schools work. Charter schools are a way to develop alternatives to the system that isn’t working. If parents and local educators can use the charter school system to develop new education ideas that work with their local community, those ideas could then be implemented where “the rest of the kids” go to school.

  8. Ruth Rodriguez Fay
    Ruth Rodriguez Fay says:

    Wow, the people most in line to profit from the privatizing of public education must be celebrating that they have been able to convince so many that their profit making education reforms is good for our Democracy. If you do a little research, you can find a video where billionaires and Wall Street investors strategized about where they could make higher profits, and determined that public education was a well of untapped potential to be made. With the help of ALEC, they proceeded to design the most comprehensive money making scam.

    But, first they had to convince the public that our schools were failing. How are schools failing? Well, you have ALEC, with no educators involved write the laws, Common Core and all the testing, curriculum and consultants involved in setting the measures that districts must follow in order to get federal dollars.(by the way this is unconstitutional). Every state constitution prohibits the federal government from mandating the curriculum, but in this case the federal government claims that they are not forcing the state, they’re simply offering the money, and the states that accept the money had to comply.

    ALEC was able to accomplish their plan buying unscrupulous politicians who passed the present day market-based, non educational malpractice laws .

    Now, the heart of the profit-making scheme includes, the test (check out Pearson that went from a multi million company, to thanks to our test obsessed refors, is now a multi billion corporation), consulting services, curriculum, and the for-profit charter schools enterprise. The “only” determinant factors to deny student’s promotion and graduation, teacher’s evaluation, and closing “underperforming schools is a single test, a test that was by design meant to have a 60% failure rate. Teachers who are being evaluated on the student test scores never saw the test, are prohibited from even discussing the test, a that is administered at the end of the school year, and whose results don’t arrive until the following school year, teachers cannot see where the student weakness is; mind you, the scorers are non educators, recruited on Craig’s list.

    Now, here is something that I find utterly incomprehensible, how is it that so many families accepted without questioning, this competive undemocratic practices? Its the moral obligation for the government to provide EVERY child the opportunity of the highest quality education. Why have we allowed our government to bring in profiteers to design the schools our children deserve? Why aren’t families asking, if these measures are pedagogically and developmentally sound, why is it that the children of the mastermind of these measures, the wealthy, and politically aligned are not forced the same educational malpractice? Contrary to the information given here, my state of MA does that have the successful outcomes of the charters, in fact the opposite is the reality. What was found that almost every charter school here cherry picked their students, the ones they feared would not pass the test are usually “counseled” out, and send back to the public school the students came from. I worked in a high school in Roxbury, and every year just before the MCAS, we would get students from the charter schools. The test scores would not reflect on them, but we were the recipient of those students who did not help the charter schools boast about how they have better test scores. There is a report from the state of every charter school enrollment that shows the number of students enrolled at the beginning of the school year, and the number of students they actually had at the end of the school year. Some charters showed to have half the number of students that they started with. If all the money that has gone into the privatizing of public schools had instead being put into the schools they labeled as, “failing”, with real educators, and child development experts, having small class size, using best practices with Special needs and English Language Learners(the very group that charter schools do not serve), then we could boast about having eauity, and justice for ALL our students.

  9. Joe
    Joe says:

    You’re right, charter schools don’t work. My daughter attends one in Colorado.

    Last year they crushed the states average composite ACT score for the fourth consecutive year. The school is ranked #1 in the state for academics and 45 in US News best high schools in the country (out of 21,000 schools). Most major university’s and ivy league schools are regularly on campus to recruit.

    Yes we receive tax money but only a percentage of what other public schools in our community get. Most of the money needed to fill the gap is through fund raising events and other income generating projects. I do not pay out of pocket other than tax dollars to send her there.

    And lastly she got in based on merit. Not all children are able to compete at this level so thinking everyone is entitled is not reasonable. That is like telling someone because your child is a “C” student they should automatically be accepted to Harvard.

    You’re right, charter schools don’t work.

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