“We need more charter schools as a choice for parents”. “Charter schools foster innovation!” All we hear is that charter schools are the answer to failing public education. If you recall, charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate outside the governance and policies of a local district in a state.
This charter school hype was literally translated into policy in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, fewer than 20 of approximately 120 schools in center New Orleans remained usable. Since the hurricane destroyed the state and local tax base, the result was a state takeover of public schools, with more than half of them reopening as charter schools. According to an Urban Institute, New Orleans has become the largest charter school experiment in the country.
But do charter schools live up to the hype? The truth is they don’t. Charter schools are given a window of three to five years to produce results or shut down. Yet the results of studies done by the Economic Policy Institute illustrate there is no real distinguishable academic effect on children in charter schools versus ones in traditional public schools.
There are other myths around charters that need dispelling. One myth is that charters foster innovation for public schools. Although there are many charter schools that do innovative things with curricula and have creative names (some are simply strange), they do not help reshape traditional public schools.
In fact, charter schools tend to be in competition with traditional public schools for students rather than becoming conduits for changing the public education system. Ostensibly, public schools should not be competing for students like businesses would compete for customers. Public schools are not businesses, but a fundamental right provided for all. A quality education should not be a scarce commodity.
Another myth is that charter schools use the same public funds as traditional public schools. That is not quite true. Although charter schools are a state-by-state enterprise, they are quasi-independent entities that have more flexibility than traditional public schools to raise funds beyond what districts provide. This exacerbates inequities in school funding. For instance, the largest private economic contributor to the charter school movement is the conservative Walton Family Foundation (Walmart), who is a big player in New Orleans and over 30 cities throughout the U.S. Their funds supplement the budgets of a great many charter schools, well beyond what traditional schools receive.
Lastly, we need to stop presenting charter schools as a real choice for poor families living in underperforming districts. It’s a false choice. If charter schools are not presenting distinguishable educational results for families and traditional public schools are still chronically underperforming, then families are forced to make a selection among limited options.
Charter schools are not the panacea for change, but simply a tactic. We need to expand our approach to educational change to center on financial equity in schools, and an integrated public policy approach that targets communities. Educational fads are not enough.