In 1991, Minnesota passed the first charter school law in the United States, allowing state funds to support schools that operate autonomously from the public educational system. The charter school idea caught on quickly, with 40 states and the District of Columbia passing charter school laws between 1991 and 2006. By fall 2005, there were approximately 3,600 charter schools enrolling about 1 million students across the country.
The basic premise of charter school reform is to allow educators, parents, and/or entrepreneurs to receive per pupil funding to run schools that are exempt from many rules and regulations of the public system, including student assignment policies. Thus, charter schools not only have a great deal of autonomy in terms of their daily operations, they also have greater control over their enrollments than most public schools. They are schools of choice, enrolling students through an admissions process that often, but not always, involves a lottery. In exchange for this greater autonomy, charter schools are supposed to be held accountable for student outcomes. Each school’s chartering agreement with one of various charter granting institutions – a school district, a state board of education, a state charter school board, or a university – describes its educational philosophy and goals. If a charter school fails to achieve these goals, the charter granting authority has the right to revoke the charter.
Beyond these similarities, each state charter school law is slightly different. Some laws are far more lenient than others in terms of the number of charters that can be granted or the number of charter school authorizing organizations. Furthermore, some states allow private schools to be converted into charter schools. Others allow charter schools to serve home schooling families or students who want to finish school via independent study. (These are known as non-classroom based charter schools.) As a result of these differences in state laws, as well as demographic distinction in the K 12 populations, there is wide variation in the number of charter schools and their enrollments from one state to the next. For instance, in the 2005–6 school year, California claimed almost 600 charter schools serving about 200,000 students. In the same year, Mississippi had only one charter school serving 380 students.
In fact, charter school reform, as a national movement, is fairly lopsided, with only six states – Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Texas – housing nearly two thirds of the charter schools and students (see Ziebarth et al. 2005). On the other end of the spectrum, 12 of the 40 states with charter school laws have fewer than 20 charter schools, accounting for only 3 percent of all the schools and less than 3 percent of all the students.
Thus, the popularity of charter schools is widespread but uneven, as different states and local officials embrace the reform to different degrees. This diversity across state and local lines also reflects the varied political roots of the charter school reform movement, as various supporters of charter schools jumped on the bandwagon for divergent reasons.
Charter school reform was born in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when there was growing frustration with many of the equity based policies of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly with programs such as school desegregation, compensatory education, and bilingual education, which were seen as overregulated. Policymakers were bent on trying to improve the quality of the overall educational system via an emphasis on higher educational standards – i.e., ‘‘excellence’’ – as well as an infusion of choice and competition.
The argument was that a rising tide would lift all boats and that both standards based accountability systems via systemic reform and a strong dose of market forces, namely competition and choice, would force all schools to respond to the needs of all students. All of this coincided with a growing demand for greater decentralization of educational governance and control. Charter school reform was in sync with all three of these efforts and is grounded in the ideology of each (see Wells et al. 2002).
Charter School Reform after 15 Years: What We Have Learned
Despite charter school reform’s political origins in both systemic reform and decentralization movements, in many ways it has been the free market advocates who have most directly shaped charter school policies. Given that 90 percent of the charter schools in the US exist in states with more deregulatory laws, much of the research on charter school reform conducted thus far provides insight into how effective the market model of school change is in the real world of schools and children. The results are not optimistic, especially in light of the many claims attached to charter school reform at the birth of the movement. Proponents claimed that charter schools would promote achievement through their more autonomous structure. They also expected that charter schools would have greater accountability for student outcomes and public dollars, because of the possibility of losing their charter as a consequence of poor performance. Finally, charter school advocates claimed that these schools would provide choice for families and competition for public schools, improving the educational marketplace. Below, the research to date on each of these claims is summarized.
Efforts to summarize and synthesize studies conducted on charter schools and student achievement have produced inconclusive but fairly negative results. In studies of national data and studies of specific state assessments, there is no evidence that charter schools are consistently outperforming regular public schools; in some cases, they are doing worse.
In Levin’s (2005) review of the research on charter schools and student achievement, he concludes that although charter school advocates and opponents each choose particular studies that favor their points of view, overall there is no reliable pattern of difference between charter and public schools.
Another comprehensive review of the literature on charter schools and student achievement by Carnoy et al. (2005) examined separately those studies that drew upon the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test scores across states and those that examined charter schools within the context of particular states by drawing on state test data. The vast majority of state level studies conclude that charter schools do not outperform public schools, even when charter schools have become well established. Carnoy et al. (2005) conclude that even when strong measures are used to control for selection bias, the effect on students of being in the charter schools appears to be negative.
Another review of literature on charter schools and student achievement by a more pro charter reform researcher demonstrates that of 35 charter school achievement studies con ducted since 2000, only 15 show positive results for charter schools (Hill 2005: 23). The 35 studies reviewed in this analysis include those conducted by politically conservative think tanks that are outspoken proponents of charter schools and vouchers.
Finally, a study conducted by the Rand Corporation (2003) found that in California, only the startup charter schools – those that, on average, over enroll white students – had slightly higher test scores than comparable public schools. Meanwhile, the charter schools that had been converted from regular public schools and enrolled a higher percentage of black and Latino students had test scores that were comparable to demographically similar public schools. And worse yet, the non-classroom based charter schools – e.g., the online and independent study charter schools that enroll larger numbers of low income and/or low achieving students at a very low per pupil cost – had lower test scores than public schools with similar enrollments (see Wells & Holme 2005).
As evidence mounts that current charter school laws have done little to improve student achievement, additional research suggests that they are rarely held accountable for student achievement. The lack of serious academic accountability for charter schools was documented in a US Department of Education study, which found that more than half of the charter school authorizers surveyed said they had difficulty closing charter schools that were failing. In fact, only 12 percent of those surveyed said they had ever revoked a charter or denied a renewal of a charter. And in those instances when an authorizer enforced a formal sanction, it was almost always due to financial problems with the charter school and rarely because of enforcement of the academic accountability provisions of the charter school laws (Finnigan et al. 2004).
Charter school reform in Dayton, Ohio, pro vides an example of the lack of academic accountability within the movement. Dayton experienced a proliferation of charter schools, despite evidence that the existing charter schools – many of which were operated by the same management companies that were requesting the new charters – were performing at a lower level on state exams. A full 26 percent of students in Dayton are enrolled in charter schools, a much higher rate than in any other American city, but few of Dayton’s charter schools perform better than its public schools (Dillon 2005).
In addition to the lack of academic account ability, there is also growing evidence that charter school reform opens the door for fraud and misappropriation of funds. In other words, public funding for these schools is deregulated to the degree that opportunists can make money at the public’s expense. And while charter schools are more likely to be shut down because of fiscal as opposed to academic accountability issues, numerous examples of charter school closures suggest that it often takes a long time before fiscally questionable schools are closed (see Dillon 2004).
While solid research on charter school accountability – academic or fiscal – is lacking, there is no evidence that these publicly funded schools are being held more accountable than the regular public schools, especially in the states with the more deregulated charter school laws.
Choice and Competition
The claim that charter schools would provide students and parents with greater choice in education certainly speaks to the experiences of some of the students some of the time. Yet, research on charter school enrollments suggests that charter schools are more racially and socioeconomically segregated at the school level than the already highly segregated public schools. Further distinctions appear when researchers examine factors such as parent education and parental involvement.
Charter school proponents tout the fact that overall, when aggregated national data only are examined, charter schools serve a slightly higher percentage of students of color, if not more poor students. But more careful analyses of the data broken down by state, district, and surrounding communities demonstrate that charter schools disproportionately serve less disadvantaged students within their contexts. In other words, charter schools may well be located in low income neighborhoods and enroll low income students of color, but oftentimes we see that the students enrolled in charter schools are less poor, have more involved and/or better educated parents, and are less likely to be labeled special needs or English language learners than their peers in nearby public schools. These data suggest that within each state, charter schools create more stratification at the school level (Cobb & Glass 1999; Fuller et al. 2003; Carnoy et al. 2005).
Furthermore, there are major differences across states in terms of the demographics of charter schools. In some states – especially Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan – charter school reform is a mostly urban reform designed to serve predominantly low income students of color. In other states, such as California, Arizona, and Colorado, it has appealed to a much wider range of people and communities, including many that are predominantly white and well off (Wells et al. 2000). Those states in which charter school minority enrollment is lower by more than 5 percent from the district enrollments house more charter schools overall than the states in which minority enrollment in charter schools is greater on average than district demographics by at least 5 percent (Ziebarth et al. 2005).
Roy and Mishel (2005) compare charter school demographics to the nearest public schools and demonstrate that in several states with the largest charter school enrollments, including Arizona, California, and Florida, charter schools enroll higher percentages of white students than their nearby public schools. They also find that charter schools in these states enroll a much lower percentage of students eligible for free or reduced price lunch than their nearby public schools.
Even when the racial/ethnic makeup of charter schools is similar to other nearby public schools, the students enrolled in charter schools are often ‘‘advantaged’’ in other ways. For instance, minority students attending charter schools in states where minority enrollment in charter schools is higher than in public schools tend to be socioeconomically advantaged compared to minority students in public schools (Carnoy et al. 2005). Of course, an argument could be made that even if the students enrolled in charter schools are slightly less disadvantaged than those who attend nearby public schools, the mere fact that these public schools down the street operate within a competitive educational market means they will respond to the competition for students by improving. In reviewing this literature, Levin (2005) argues that the available results from a variety of charter school and voucher settings suggest only a modest competitive response by public schools at best.
Overall, there is little evidence that charter schools and the policies that create and support them have delivered on their promises of raising student achievement, making schools more accountable, or providing choices that the most disadvantaged students can take advantage of within a given community or context. Still, they remain a popular reform effort in great part because they are steeped in popular beliefs about the free market and competition. Researchers must continue to ask hard questions about whose interests are being served by this reform.
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