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Popular, Bipartisan, and Mediocre

IN THE EARLY 1990s, American educators began experimenting with charter schools as a political compromise between Democrats who supported public schools and Republicans who supported private school vouchers. In the bargain, charter schools were to be given more flexibility to experiment than traditional public schools, but they were supposed to be held accountable for raising student achievement. If, after a fixed period of time (often five years), they failed to do so, the charter would be terminated.

Republicans liked the competition that charters provided to regular public schools and the deregulation of public education. Democrats liked that charter schools differed from private school voucher plans, as charters did not charge tuition, were not allowed to screen out low-performers, did not divide students based on race or religion, and were subject to the same testing requirements as public schools. Today charter schools continue to enjoy broad bipartisan support, from Republican governors and Congressional leaders to President Barack Obama, and charters now educate more than 1.5 million students in forty states. But after twenty years, are charter schools working any better than regular public schools?

This volume of essays, edited by Christopher Lubienski and Peter Weitzel, provides a careful look back at the original goals of charter schools and offers a sobering assessment of their first two decades. On the bottom-line question of academic achievement, the authors conclude that “the record on achievement is mixed, with most of the best evidence showing results similar to or somewhat below those of other public schools.” The disappointing outcomes have led some former advocates, such as Diane Ravitch and Sol Stern, to reconsider their position, while putting die-hard charter school champions in an awkward position. In June, 2009, for example, Rep. George Miller (D-CA) gave a speech lauding charters as “a beacon and a lantern to show us the way.” Less than two weeks later, Lubienski and Weitzel note, Stanford University released the nation’s most comprehensive study of charters, finding only 17 percent of charters did better than public schools, while 37 percent did worse, and 46 percent performed at a similar level. To make matters worse, the study had been funded by pro-charter foundations. The authors find that charter schools also come up short in meeting other early goals articulated by advocates: putting competitive pressures on public schools, reducing teacher turnover, and lowering levels of school segregation.

Charter school enthusiasts believed that charters would not only benefit the students who attended them, but would also put competitive pressure on regular public schools to improve. The research to date, however, shows that “charter schools’ competitive effects are mixed and tend to be quite small.” A key problem, researchers find, is that parents do not make the sort of informed decisions that would drive bad public and charter schools out of business. The evidence suggests that “many parents are pulling their children out of higher-performing public schools in order to send them to academically inferior schools.” Too often, the authors note, “there are waiting lists for bad schools.”

Nor have charter schools empowered teachers, as some original advocates hoped. Albert Shanker gave a popular boost to the charter school idea in 1988, envisioning institutions where teachers would have greater authority to try creative approaches. The Minnesota legislator who authored the nation’s first charter school law also noted that “many teachers were frustrated with their work and were leaving the profession. I wanted to give them ownership.” In practice, however, Lubienski and Weitzel note that most charter schools actually reduce teacher voice and have come to “represent the institutionalization of anti-union interests,” which is why Shanker came to reject charters by the mid-1990s. With only 12 percent of charter schools unionized, charter school teachers are less well paid than regular public school teachers and leave the profession at much higher rates. Moreover, according to Gary Miron of Western Michigan University, “attrition from the removal of ineffective teachers—a potential plus of charters—explains only a small portion of the annual exodus.” While conservatives hypothesized that the non-union environment would increase test scores in charters, it has not done so, just as the weak status of teacher unions in the American South has not produced better student outcomes in that region of the country.

As schools of choice, finally, charters had the potential to overcome residential patterns of segregation by race and class, but the evidence suggests that in practice charters are more segregated than regular public schools. The good news, according to David Garcia of Arizona State University, is that there has not been a great deal of white flight to charter schools, as some early critics feared. Instead there has been considerable minority self-segregation. According to researchers at the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, 70 percent of black charter school students attend “intensely segregated” schools, compared with 34 percent of black students in regular public schools.  

Some charter schools are even intentionally designed to encourage self-segregation. Minnesota, the birthplace of charter schools, has thirty charters that cater mostly to a particular ethnic or immigrant group, such as Somali, Ethiopian, or Hmong students. In Florida and New York, Hebrew language charter schools have been started by Jews seeking to instill ethnic solidarity. And nationally, more than two hundred Afrocentric charter schools were opened between 1996 and 2004. Some states, likewise, give a priority to charter schools that target “at risk” students. In all, one-quarter of charter schools aim at “serving special populations.”

This phenomenon raises serious concerns, for both social and educational reasons. As Michael Kelly, an editor of this magazine, noted in the mid-1990s, ethnic charter schools undercut a fundamental rationale for public education: to instill in students an American identity. Writing about an Afrocentric charter school in Washington, D.C., Kelly declared: “Public money is shared money, and it is to be used for the furtherance of shared values, in the interest of e pluribus unum. Charter schools and their like are definitionally antithetical to this American promise. They take from the pluribus to destroy the unum.”

While there is a certain surface logic to charter schools prioritizing “at risk” students, mountains of research suggest that concentrating school poverty does low-income students no favor. High poverty public schools are twenty-two times less likely to be high performing than middle-class schools, and low-income students in high poverty schools are two years behind low-income students in more affluent schools. There is little reason to think that high-poverty charter schools can be successful at scale, and the overall disappointing results of charters suggest that the approach is not working.

Charter schools remain popular with Americans because they serve an important function: providing an educational alternative for poor kids in lousy public schools. But the fact that charters are not, on the whole, any better than public schools suggests that the key impediment to equal opportunity does not lie with regulation or teachers unions or modes of school governance. Several successful charter schools throughout the country—such as High Tech High in San Diego, and the Denver School of Science and Technology—consciously seek a socio-economically diverse student population, heeding decades of research that suggest that low-income students will perform far better in economically integrated environments. Some, like the Green Dot charter schools, are willing to work with unionized teachers. Given the disappointing results of the first two decades of charter schools, perhaps economically integrated charter schools that allow for teachers to have a louder voice could be a genuine “beacon” in the coming decades.

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools through Public School Choice; and Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy.