The Charter School Movement

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Ever since the first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991, charter schools have been growing  at an annual average growth rate of 11% per year since 1999, reaching 5,997 charters nationwide in the 2012-13 school year. That number represents 6.3% of all public schools. Of the charter schools that were operating in the 2012-13 school year, 54% have been open for 7+ years (35% have been open for 10+ years). Yet in any given year between 2008 to 2012, the number of charter schools that were shut down was over 30% of the number of new charters opened that year.

charter school growth
Nationwide, one in five of the new public charter schools that opened last year was based in California. Statewide, the number of charter schools has doubled every five years.

What are charters?

Charter schools are independently-run public schools that are less constrained by traditional district bureaucracy and regulations. A person, community, or organization can open a charter school by drafting a charter and getting approval by a public authorizing entity. This charter contract generally states the vision, schooling model, and standards of accountability that the charter school will uphold. Charter schools are viewed as decentralized, more flexible, and more innovative schools.

However, charters enjoy autonomy in exchange for increased accountability – their existence is conditional on their ability to achieve the results determined in their charters, which means they often have to show superior performance than their local public school counterparts in order to justify their existence. Otherwise authorizers can choose not to renew a charter and shut the school down.

Charters can be run as non-profit or for-profit. They might use lots of technology, have extended school days, encourage a strong college-going culture, have a focus on math, or all or none of the above. Essentially, charter schools come in all shapes and sizes and differ significantly from one organization to another [1].  They can operate independently as one school or operate under a network managed by a central Charter Management Organization.

Some charter schools have shown consistently remarkable results over many years (i.e. IDEA Public Schools and KIPP Public Charter Schools) while others  have been failed experiments. Important determinants of charter school growth within a state are the legal and financial barriers to charter entry as well as public sentiment toward charter schools, which can vary significantly from one region to the next.

Charters are often labeled as part of a “school choice” movement. With district public schools, families are usually required to send their children to the closest local district public school. Literally, people are confined by their zip code. Charter schools are open for all regardless of zip code boundaries, giving parents who otherwise would be confined to the local district school an additional option.

Charter critics sometimes argue that charters cream the crop by strongly recruiting the higher performing students from nearby public schools. However, charters are required by law to run a blind lottery. Research has shown that charter schools nationwide actually serve a higher proportion of students of color than district schools because charters tend to open in areas with a minority concentration. Within the regions that charters open, they serve on average a similar proportion of students of color as their neighboring district schools.  However, some argue that charter schools serve a lower proportion of low-income students than neighboring district schools because wealthier, more educated parents are more likely to apply for the charter lottery.

Because the charter school movement has won the attention and support of prominent wealthy philanthropists and hedge fund managers, the entire charter movement becomes an easy target for accusations of profiteering off public funds. However, a growing body of research is showing that charter schools receive almost 30% less funding than their public school counterparts.

The Pitfalls of Accountability

The freedom to open a non-district school comes at a cost – charters, held to higher accountability standards, are often forced to put high stakes on standardized test scores because these are easy to measure.  This can lead to the systems archetype, Seeking the Wrong Goal, which reveals that systems will produce exactly what they are incentivized to produce. So if charter authorizers pay attention to performance on test scores as a signal of success, then they create an environment where charter school culture will be designed around maximizing just that. Teachers will plan lessons according to the frequency of questions on the standardized test. And insofar as tests have historically been multiple choice assessments that reward memorization ability more than critical thinking, this can lead to more narrow and shallow classroom instruction.

This problem led to the cross-state efforts to create the Common Core State Standards that aims to increase the rigor and depth of content taught. These standards essentially detail what students should be expected to learn at each grade level from K-12 in English and math to better align with what they will need to be “college-ready”. While the Common Core will raise the difficulty bar, it still exists under an environment of testing, so it will create yet another test that teachers will teach to, this time affecting a great majority of U.S. educators – As of December 1, 2013, only 4 states chose not to adopt the standards – Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia. Never before have states seen such a uniform alignment in what should be taught at every grade level.

This recent wave of tough accountability is a reaction to decades of no accountability. Prior to 2000, U.S. public schools districts had little incentive to improve performance. Since schools were funded based on the number of students they served and not based on any metrics of student learning, districts were essentially guaranteed income as long as the local population kept growing. Then President George W. Bush promoted Texas education reforms that had been focused on testing and accountability, which he claimed were causing higher scores and graduation rates. This led to the federal government expanding its role in U.S. education through the passing of No Child Left Behind (“NCLB”) of 2001, which required students grades 3 through 8 to take an annual state-administered test. The act set high test score expectations and held schools accountable for meeting annual targets [2]. Consistently poor-performing public schools (as measured by test results) were threatened with a potential charter school or private company takeover.

No Child Left Behind

NCLB’s unrealistic expectations and the high stakes attached to them led to countless unintended consequences – some states applied for waivers to be exempt from NCLB, schools were caught cheating on tests, states were accused of designing “easy” tests, extracurricular programs were cut in order to spend more time teaching math and reading, and many more.

Critics of NCLB saw a correlation between poor-performing schools and poverty, as if NCLB simply served to identify the rich from the poor. They argued that regions with poor results really needed more investment in social services rather than the threat of a school closing looming over them, which was bad for school morale. It was a mistake to think that the education system could be fixed independently of the welfare system. NCLB and the more recent federal policy, Race to the Top, have placed unprecedented responsibility on teachers and endorsed charter schools as a potential solution to the existing public school inadequacies, causing teachers to feel like they were being unfairly blamed for poor student learning outcomes.

This in turn ignited the wave of anti-charter sentiment and accusations of a “privatization movement” sweeping public institutions. When designing accountability systems, we should think carefully about what we should incentivize (in this case, test scores), who we are placing the burden on (teachers) [3], and what unintended consequences might unfold.  Charter schools became a threat to nearby district public schools because schools were competing for student enrollment, and hence, revenues. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see the systems archetype of Escalation playing out between charter schools and public district schools, where each side ramps up efforts to improve public perception of its own side and discount the successes of the other.

Charter and Public School Escalation
Charter schools (left side) put in resources to improve public favoritism toward opening more charters. In response, the district public schools (right side) works to convince the public to support district schools and not enroll in charters, which decreases public favoritism. This then ramps up marketing efforts by charter supporters, and the cycle continues. In the best case scenario, the two sides choose to work together to improve schooling rather than compete for existence. In the worst case, charter schools are seen as a new threat to traditional institutions and the dialogue denigrates into a war of rhetoric where more effort is put into calculating and advertising great results rather than actually getting them. Click here to learn to read systems diagrams like the one pictured above.

In reaction to NCLB, teachers’ unions at public schools escalated efforts to protect job security, leading to concerns that teacher jobs were protected at the expense of children’s education.  Under the power of teacher unions, poor-performing teachers with tenure are difficult to remove, seniority-based pay structures reward years of experience rather than teaching effectiveness, and the collective bargaining process adds additional layers of approval by unions before significant changes can be implemented in the classroom.  In New York City from 2007-2010, only 88 teachers were fired out of a city of 80,000 teachers – that’s just 0.01%.

While charter schools are not entirely union-free (approximately 12% have teacher unions), they are able to hire teachers without bringing in the legacy of existing teacher protection laws that unions had negotiated with public school districts [d]. This means that charter schools have more freedom to implement longer school days and more flexible hiring and firing policies.  Some public school districts that are bound by layers of teacher protection laws meanwhile feel they are unable to compete against charter schools. Unable to escape the chains of unions, their new enemy are the charter schools that threaten their revenue streams. They begin launching verbal attacks to characterize charter schools for being “anti-teacher” and “anti-public”.

What’s Your Stance On Accountability?

There is general consensus that the U.S education system is underperforming its potential, ranking 26th in math and 17th in reading compared to OECD countries in 2012. But in the debate about how to improve schools, there exists a tug-of-war between accountability and freedom. Accountability is often required if there is fear that schools won’t perform well without stricter rules and structures. But too much of it leads to rigid approaches of learning. Schools end up doing the wrong thing more efficiently. At the height of the high-stakes testing environment of the last 12 years, charter schools were given unlimited flexibility to innovate on new tactics for preparing their students for multiple choice tests. Regardless of the level of autonomy, the narrowly defined incentives dominated the approach, especially in the resource-constrained education sector.

Another important question of accountability is “who should schools be accountable to?” Should schools be accountable to the federal government, to local governments, or to parents? Those who believe parents don’t know what is best for their children will opt for more centralized control and de-emphasize the need for school choice. Charter schools bring accountability to the hands of parents by giving parents an option of which school to financially support, which removes the guaranteed funding that local public district schools usually enjoy. Charters are also accountable to their local authorizers and the specific promises laid out in their charters, which is why many close down when they are perceived to be under-performing.

What Does a Good School Look Like?

Rather than asking whether charter schools or public schools are better, we should shift the conversation to what systems enable schools to thrive, and what it means to be good. Some things are clear red flags. A school that has a powerful teachers’ union where poor performing teachers are difficult to remove is a bad thing for students. A school where teachers are regularly fired at will without investment in professional development is probably not building effective systems for improvement. A school that strongly emphasizes teaching to a test will provide insufficient education to its students.  And a tightly controlled central management where the administrators in charge do not understand the unique character of each school campus it manages is set up to make decisions that likely serve the interests of only a visible subset of its schools.

When reading heated rhetoric about what works and doesn’t work in schools, remember that all entities are here to protect their own existence – teachers’ unions exist to protect teachers, not students. School districts exist to protect the jobs of their administrators, and have no incentive to support charter schools that compete for funding. Charter schools want to exist and will fight to build a positive image, and it helps to highlight superior performance against the local district schools. Private technology companies interested in making money in the education sector will oversell the role of technology and undersell the importance of teachers. And finally, approach extremists who make one-size-fits-all characterizations with skepticism. I’m talking about those who hold onto beliefs that all “teachers are self-interested and therefore evil”, “public schools are failing and need to be closed down immediately”, or “charter schools are on a ploy to profit off public dollars”. There are good schools and good teachers in public and charter schools. We should work to support policies that will promote the best practices of good schools, wherever we may find them.

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[1] Charter presence differs significantly from state to state due to differing legal barriers, financial costs, teacher union power, and local sentiment toward charters. As of the 2012-13 school year, the states with the highest percentage of public schools that are charters include  Washington D.C. (47%), Arizona (24%), Florida (15%), California (11%), and Colorado (10%). Some cities have fully embraced charters – for example, 79% of students in New Orleans attend a charter school  even though only 7.4% of Louisiana’s public schools are charters (source).

[2] No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was a federal policy that pushed the idea of tough accountability to public schools in the 2000s.  States and schools that believed the measures to be unrealistic began acting according to the systems archetype of Rule Beating – engaging in the wrong behaviors in order to deal with unrealistic rules. Because tests emphasized math, reading, and science, many schools began cutting programs in arts and other electives in order to focus on teaching to the test. Some schools were accused of manipulating test results by having teachers erase incorrect student answers or creatively reclassifying their low performers to be excluded. Various states applied for waivers to exempt them from NLCB. Teachers’ unions beefed up financial and lobbying power in efforts to protect job security.

[3] Because teachers are held accountable, they teach to the test, and have more incentives to do the thinking and the work for the students. Meanwhile students get used to having things handed to them and to rarely failing. This fits the system archetype known as Addiction.


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