At issue | Various articles, columns on charter school issue
Charter schools are like private schools with autonomy from many regulations, with their own school boards, little oversight, their own curriculum and they select their students. Unlike private schools, they receive funding that would otherwise go to public schools, thus expanding the number of schools without expanding available dollars.
This reduces public school funds for necessities such as building maintenance, utilities and transportation. Charters promise to provide a better quality of education than public schools, but rarely do.
Evaluating charters is tricky because students are normally from families where the parents are more involved in their children's education. And we know parental involvement is a key factor in student achievement. Further, charters can expel or counsel-out students who do not progress. Therefore, the test scores should be higher, even if the quality of education is the same. Yet that is not the case.
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Some studies appear to show that charter schools provide superior performance, but don't be fooled. Most of those are suspect because they are performed by people who operate or promote those schools. Some studies were commissioned to prove the schools' effectiveness.
On the other hand, the truth is out. Every large-scale, independent scientific study of charter schools has shown the majority do not measure up. One of the most trusted studies of charters in 15 states by Stanford University found 17 percent seemed to offer students a better education, 37 percent were worse and the rest no different. One Stanford researcher who found New York charter schools superior used flawed methodology.
In 1990, Milwaukee hosted the first state-funded program to allow low-income families to send children to any private school. A careful University of Wisconsin study showed that, after five years, children who participated did no better than children in public schools.
In some cases, private, for-profit companies operate charter schools with the assurance that corporate management techniques can cut costs and improve quality. But neither seems to be true. A Rand study evaluated the Philadelphia experiment where some schools were turned over to corporate management and even given extra funding. After four years, private companies did neither better nor worse than traditional public schools but were more costly.
A 2004 U.S. Department of Education report, "Evaluation of Public Charter Schools," concluded that, "in five case study states, charter schools are less likely to meet state performance standards than traditional public schools."
Washington, D.C., schools are thought to be the worst in the nation. Congress approved a program to improve education by sending children to private schools. Once again, careful analysis showed the program was a complete failure.
Many other independent, unbiased studies demonstrate similar results. But fraud is another danger, leaving children the losers. For example, a Milwaukee charter school used $300,000 to purchase two Mercedes automobiles. A judge soon shut down the school; nearly 200 students were displaced in the middle of the year.
There are some outstanding exceptions. The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), which operates 82 schools in 19 states, is one and SEED is another. KIPP has discovered that poor children need a more intensive education because most start school years behind and can never catch up.
KIPP schools hold classes 9.5 hours per day, assign two hours of homework every night, hold Saturday and summer classes, give principals complete authority and demand that parents monitor the child's education and behavior. KIPP schools outperform their peers. While most charter schools simply mimic public ones, KIPP really does innovate in ways public schools cannot afford. SEED schools are residential programs costing $35,000 per year for each student and KIPP needs more money per student than public schools.
Since most charter schools turn out to be no better or worse than public schools and since they drain money from the educational funding pool, there seems no good reason to sanction them except if they truly have an exceptional track record.