Charter Schools Are a Great Idea

In the original concept of charter schools, a few innovative educators would be enabled to organize their own school and experiment with new ideas for reforming the old model and improving student learning, all under the auspices of, and using funds from, the surrounding public system. The ideas that worked could be incorporated into “regular” schools. The ones that didn’t would also provide a learning experience.

That’s the theory, anyway. The reality has been far different.

Two different articles that landed near each other in my Instapaper queue over winter break offer plenty of evidence showing that charter schools in the US, with few exceptions, provide lousy instruction and worse results, and are undermining public education.

Possibly the biggest problem is that nearly half of charter students are enrolled in schools being run by corporations,1 often supported by grants from large, well-funded philanthropic organizations with a political agenda like the Walton Foundation. And their schools are rarely held to the same accountability standards (instructional or financial) as public schools.

Beyond serious questions about who are running these schools (more business people, fewer educators), is the fact that study after study shows they produce “mixed results” at best.

A 2009 national study of charter school performance by CREDO, a research unit at Stanford University that supports charter “reform,” found that only about one in five charter schools had better test scores than comparable public schools and more than twice as many had lower ones. Earlier this year, CREDO released an updated study that looked at charters in 27 states, and little had changed. As the National Education Policy Center explained, “The bottom line appears to be that, once again, it has been found that, in aggregate, charter schools are basically indistinguishable from traditional public schools in terms of their impact on academic test performance.”

However, there is an equally fundamental problem with the way the charter concept has been applied that goes back to the original idea: very few charters are not doing anything innovative.

Most are structured around the traditional teacher information delivery model, with students required to learn the same material, in the same order, often using the same resources as has been standard in public schools for decades (if not centuries). And then demonstrate their learning on programmed standardized tests.

Some charters make a big deal out of requiring longer days, Saturday school, and more regimentation (KIPP), others substitute computer-delivered instruction for human teachers (Rocketship). Certainly these changes may work for some students under some circumstances, but as test cases that might be more broadly applied, they are generally worthless. For many public schools, these ideas could be classified as “been there, done that”.

Even with all these problems, what I’ve covered here only scratches the surface of why the charter school movement (pushed by many high profile education “reformers”) are doing nothing to improve American public education and are probably detrimental.

Spend some time and read the two articles, along with some of the many supporting citations they link to, for a much fuller picture of why the theory of the charter concept is a great idea, while the reality of charter schools in this country is a crappy mess.

The Split Over Profits

In his most recent post, Jay Mathews thinks he sees a surprising split in the school reformer monolith.

Critics of current trends in education reform, such as historian Diane Ravitch, often complain that they are up against a phalanx of business executives and rich investors more interested in making money than improving schools. These people, the critics say, march in lock step to replace our traditional public schools with charters, vouchers and online campuses so they can squeeze profits out of taxpayer dollars.

That sense of unity among the corporate types has been shattered in the past few weeks by a bitter quarrel between two of the reform movement’s most prominent leaders.

As it turns out, the dispute between these two “most prominent leaders” started during a prevention at something called the Value Investing Congress and has far more to do with profits and stock prices than it does improving student learning or other educational policy. One says stock in K12 Inc, “the nation’s largest private operator of public schools”, is a good investment, the other is selling short (which I gather is a negative view of the company).

Mathews extends this trivial financial disagreement into a major split in the reform movement. Instead what he has stumbled onto (and largely ignores) is one of the primary reasons why any improvement of American education has been stagnating over the past decade.

The only monolithic thinking here comes from investors who believe that schools are a good place to increase revenues, with politicians happy to help since it means they can move the money that was being spent on kids somewhere else (plus the investors might kick in some campaign contributions).

There’s a reason why “K12 revenue has grown 32 percent annually for the past decade”, and corporations like Pearson and NewsCorp are working hard to develop standardized materials tied to Common Core and testing systems, plus devices to deliver both.

And it has nothing to do with “the debate over what works best for our kids”.

Faulty Logic, and Downhill From There

Jay Mathews begins his recent Class Struggle post on school reform with a false premise.

Education reformers contradict themselves every day and don’t seem to know it. This includes President Obama, Mitt Romney and many mayors, scholars and activists who all say we need more charter schools, more systems that evaluate teachers based on student test scores and more merit pay.

Obama, Romney and others who are in that “mayors, scholars and activists” grouping (many of who Mathews praises) are not “reformers”. Not even close.

Evaluation systems based on standardized tests change nothing, and are instructionally regressive.

The charter concept had potential at one time but the reality is that all but a very few are little more than clones of traditional 20th century classrooms.

Merit pay is a idea that’s been tried and rejected more than once.

So why does Mathews say those so-called reformers contradict themselves?

Because charter schools don’t use the teacher assessment systems (based on standardized test scores) being advocated by his “reformers”.

An idea based on yet another false premise Mathews uses regularly: that charters know best.

A Very Solid Business

Between media companies looking to schools for new revenue streams and charter schools as investment opportunities, I think I’m in the wrong end of the education sector.

Charter schools, as you might remember, were supposed to be innovative alternatives to “traditional” schools, funded with public money and often serving poorer communities.

However, according to something called Entertainment Properties Trust, they might also be a nice addition to your investment portfolio.

What is Entertainment Properties Trust? According to its website, it is “a specialty real estate investment trust (REIT) that invests in properties in select categories which require unique industry knowledge, and offer stable and attractive returns.”

And the website also says this: “Our investment portfolio of nearly $3 billion includes megaplex movie theatres and adjacent retail, public charter schools, and other destination recreational and specialty investments. This portfolio includes over 160 locations spread across 34 states with over 200 tenants.”

The video interview with the CEO embedded in the Answer Sheet post is quite strange, although not especially unsurprising given the concerted effort of politicians to sell off as many public resources as possible to the highest bidder.

I especially enjoyed this little piece of analysis.

Well I think it’s a very stable business, very recession-resistant. It’s a very high-demand product. There’s 400,000 kids on waiting lists for charter schools … the industry’s growing about 12-14% a year. So it’s a high-growth, very stable, recession-resistant business. It’s a public payer, the state is the payer on this, uh, category, and uh, if you do business with states with solid treasuries. then it’s a very solid business.

Pick companies in the right states, the ones willing to divert lots of public money into charters, and you have a winning investment.

What we don’t get from the charter industry, and most independent charters as well, is a better education for the money spent, one of the claims often heard from their political advocates.

Playing Under Different Rules

A new study of the KIPP charter schools program, darling of school reform advocates, says they “often outperform regular public schools. “But they’re not doing it with the same students, and they’re not doing it with the same dollars.”.

The study from researchers at Western Michigan University, to be released Thursday, estimated that KIPP schools receive more than $5,000 a year per pupil through private donations in addition to regular sources of public funding. It also found that about 15 percent of KIPP students leave the schools each year as they progress from sixth to eighth grades – and that those students often are not replaced.

The people pushing charter schools want us to think they work miracles with the same cost per child as the public schools from which they draw their students and money.

However, this and other research over the years continues to show that, while they do improve the test scores of their students, KIPP and other high profile charter schools are not subject to the same criteria as the public schools to which they’re compared.

I wonder how Jay Mathews and other members of the KIPP cheering section will spin this latest bit of evidence.