Education professor Christopher Lubienski discusses charter schools and their effectiveness.
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
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With the Obama administration and Education Secretary Arne Duncan supporting an increase in the number of high-performing charter schools as part of their "Race to the Top" education initiative, charter school advocates have applauded the move, seeing competition in local school districts as a key measure to educational reform. Charter school critics, however, remain skeptical of their efficacy. Education professor Christopher Lubienski discusses charter schools and their effectiveness with News Bureau Education Editor Phil Ciciora.
Should charter-school laws be relaxed to encourage more charter schools, and, by extension, more school choice for families?
The evidence in favor of relaxing charter-school laws and increasing their number is not very compelling. If we're looking at the larger goals we have for public education, such as increasing achievement or promoting diversity and equity, it's very questionable as to whether charter schools are really doing those things.
Is there a genuine demand for charter schools?
If there is a demand for charter schools, it's mostly from political interest groups with agendas to promote. And those groups span the political spectrum.
When you look at polls, parents often don't distinguish between charter schools and other types of schools. In fact, many parents don't even know that charter schools are public schools, which may explain part of their attraction.
Rather than focusing on a specific type of school, many parents report that they like having alternatives to their local public school - whether it's a charter school, or a voucher for a private school, or, with open enrollment, another public school.
Isn't it somewhat misleading to characterize a charter school as a public school?
Because they're an amalgamation of public and private models, charter schools have been a useful device to blur the public-private distinction. In reality, they operate quite differently from district schools in that they're privately managed.
Instead of having voters elect a school board, charter schools are run by a group that's removed from direct public oversight. That can include a for-profit group, for example, which definitely changes the definition of what we've typically understood a public school to be.
When charter schools were established, their proponents argued that any school that serves the public should be seen as a public school, whether or not a public school district runs it. If a private or charter school serves the public, just like McDonald's serves the public, then that school should be entitled to public money. At least that was the argument.
Charter school advocates would argue that charter schools in the state of Illinois are funded at 61 percent of their district counterparts, averaging $6,585 per pupil compared to $10,771 per pupil at conventional public schools. Wouldn't relaxing charter-school laws help local education markets squeezed by the economic downturn?
It's true that charter schools are funded at a lower level than district schools. That was part of their original promise: that they could do more with less because they're not constrained by district bureaucracy. But the big issue here is that districts and charters not only serve different functions, they also serve different populations.
For example, special education students and non-native English-speaking students are much more expensive to educate, and are significantly underrepresented in charter schools. These costs are ultimately shouldered disproportionately by district schools, not charter schools.
Another issue is that charter schools in many areas are intended to inject the profit motive into public education. There are groups who are making quite a bit of money off of charter schools, and now there's some concerns being raised about exorbitant pay for charter school executives. Furthermore, they're simply duplicating existing school services in many cities. That's not very efficient.
The big way charter schools save money is they tend to hire less experienced,non-unionized teachers. It appears that the consequences of that decision show up in achievement test scores. District schools generally continue to outperform charters because their teachers are more experienced, better trained and, therefore, more effective.
If charter schools are free from most rules and regulations governing conventional public schools, how can parents tell the good charter schools from the bad?
Raw test scores don't tell us much about school effectiveness; they say more about who attends a school. You also have to consider the demographics behind test scores, which isn't easy to do. Still, the evidence suggests that parents aren't necessarily choosing more effective schools anyway when they vote with their feet.
The assumption is that parents look at things like school quality and the breadth of programs offered. Quite often they're choosing schools that are more affluent or have better marketing materials. Simple consumer demand is not always a great proxy for the quality of a school.