CI Blog 3: Charter Schools

When the topics of reforming education and education equity surface, we hear the words “charter school” quite often. In fact, they have gained a reputation as the fix for America’s public education system. I was introduced to the concept of the charter school when I watched the documentary “Waiting for Superman”. They were the schools the children the documentary  followed wanted so badly to get into. Why? Because these charter schools were said to provide better educations to these students than the average normal public school available to these children. And because so many of these children wanted to attend these schools, the lottery system was put into place in order to fill up the limited amount of spots.

But why the desire to attend these charter schools? Are they really the fix to the American education system that so many are wanting to reform?

Well, what is a charter school? According to the National Education Association’s article “Charter Schools”, a charter school is a primary or secondary public school that essentially has much more flexibility than the tradition public schools. They receive public money as well as private donations and must follow the rules that are put into place for all other public schools, and they are free. Their flexibility stems from the charter schools creating their own charters, a “statutorily defined performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success”. They run this show. One of the biggest characteristics of a charter school is that they are held accountable for their student achievement, and if they aren’t doing their job, they can be closed.

The idea of the charter school was developed by Professor Ray Budde of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In 1988, individuals were already asking for a reformation of the education system. His solution? Establishing charter schools or “schools or choice”.  Thus, charter schools are essentially alternatives to the traditional public school; if that public school doesn’t fit your needs or just isn’t good enough, there would be more options of schools to pick from.

The biggest when pondering charter schools is whether they have been successful in being a good alternative to public schools – are they better and do they actually improve educational outcomes? There are mixed reviews. In 2009, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that about 17% of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools. 46% showed no difference from public schools and 37% were worse than their traditional public school counterparts. More charter schools were WORSE than their traditional public school counterparts. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Education found in its Evaluation of the Public Charter Schools Program: Final Report in 2003 that charter schools were out-performed by the public schools; however, the reason for this is ambiguous. It could range from several minor things or simply be a random factor that cannot be anticipated or factored into this study. In March of 2009, the Center of Education Reform found that 657 out of more than 5250 charter schools were closed due to lack of achievement and lack of interest in enrollment.

An interesting observation is that charter schools, despite being out-performed by the public school counterparts, actually improve these public schools by creating competition within the same area. Their presence actually makes these public schools want to do better to attract more students.

However, charter schools aren’t simply an attempt to provide a choice. They have had some positive effect that cannot be ignored. The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) is a string of charter schools in cities, such as Philly and the Bronx that provide students who are of a lower income bracket the chance for a better education than those that the public schools can provide. It has been found that these settings allow charter schools to flourish; in cities, those public schools are abysmal (and thus there is such a desire for charter school enrollment in these cities as seen in the “Waiting For Superman” documentary). It was found that at KIPP, the students perform much better as reflected in standardized testing. The children who attend this charter school stay in school from 7:30am to 5:00pm and have alternating Saturday activities as well as lessons in the summer. For more information, check out this article:

It seems like charter school success may be a function of its location and thus has drawn criticism for racial segregation. In these cities, the lower income African Americans and Hispanic individuals are often found. What happened to diversity?

Regardless, the idea of a charter school has sustained since now, but the advantages and disadvantages are complex and there are many factors that just can’t be placed into a numerical equation to assess its success.

Did any of you attend a charter school? How was your experience there?


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