Conservatives are all too fond of touting charters schools as an answer to what ails public schools, but according to a report by Gordon Lafer of the Economic Policy Institute, charter schools don’t actually provide higher quality educations to their students but do provide their operators with a financial windfall.
Upon examination, it appears that charter privatization proposals are driven more by financial and ideological grounds than by sound pedagogy:
- National research shows that charter schools, on average, perform no better than public schools. There is thus no basis for believing that replacing traditional public schools in Milwaukee with privately run charters will result in improved education.
- The “blended learning” model of education exemplified by the Rocketship chain of charter schools—often promoted by charter boosters—is predicated on paying minimal attention to anything but math and literacy, and even those subjects are taught by inexperienced teachers carrying out data-driven lesson plans relentlessly focused on test preparation. But evidence from Wisconsin, the country, and the world shows that students receive a better education from experienced teachers offering a broad curriculum that emphasizes curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking, as well as getting the right answers on standardized tests.
- Blended-learning schools such as Rocketship are supported by investment banks, hedge funds, and venture capital firms that, in turn, aim to profit from both the construction and, especially, the digital software assigned to students. To fund the growth of such operations, money earmarked for Milwaukee students is diverted to national headquarters and other cities where the company seeks to expand. Furthermore, the very curricular model that Rocketship employs is shaped not simply by what is good for kids but also, in part, by what will generate profits for investors and fuel the company’s ambitious growth plans.
- The proposed “school accountability” bill that Wisconsin State Senate Education Committee Chair Luther Olsen drafted in January 2014—which embodies the most ambitious version of corporate-backed school reform—measures school achievement in ways that are skewed against poor cities and that exempt charter schools from equal accountability. Such a bill would likely result in shutting a growing number of public schools and concentrating the city’s neediest students in a shrinking public system that is denied the resources to serve them. Eventually, this would bankrupt the public school district.
- Some of the best options for school improvement are outlawed in Sen. Olsen’s draft bill. For instance, Milwaukee’s award-winning ALBA (Academia de Lenguajes y Bellas Artes) school is a publicly run charter school that outperformed every privately run charter in the city. Yet under the proposed legislation, this school would be banned from opening more campuses, while privately run schools with much worse performance would be encouraged to expand.
- To truly improve education in Milwaukee, we must start with the assumption that poor children are no less deserving of a quality education than rich children. As such, the schools that privileged suburban parents demand for their children should be the yardstick we use to measure the adequacy of education in the city. This means subjecting all schools—whether public, charter, or voucher—to the same standards of accountability, including measurements that account for the economic and disability challenges their students face, and that recognize the value of a broad curriculum and experienced teachers who are qualified to develop the full range of each child’s capacities
As noted in the study by Gordon Lafer, multiple studies have compared the performance of charter schools with that of traditional public schools, and the results didn’t show a substantial difference between the two.
As charter schools have grown over the past two decades, multiple studies have compared their performance with that of traditional public schools. Their conclusion: There is no discernible difference. One recent meta-analysis reviewed the results of 83 studies conducted over 12 years, concluding that “on the whole, charters perform similarly to traditional public schools” (Miron and Urschel 2012, 228–230).
In many cases, the promise of charter schools has turned into a dismal reality. In Indiana, nearly half the state’s charter schools received grades of “D” or “F” in 2012 (Indiana Department of Education 2012). In Ohio, which has authorized charter schools in the state’s eight largest cities for nearly 20 years, nearly 84,000 students—or 87 percent of the state’s charter students—were in schools graded “D” or “F” in 2012–20131 (Bush 2013). Indeed, one study found that, after controlling for poverty and other student demographics, public schools scored significantly higher on elementary school math tests (Lubienski and Lubienski 2014, 80).
The largest national studies have been conducted by Stanford University–based Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), an organization generally supportive of charter schools. Comparing math scores of charter and public school students, CREDO’s 2009 study found that 17 percent of charter schools had superior growth in math scores, 37 percent were inferior, and 46 percent were “statistically indistinguishable” from public schools. Averaged across all schools, the impact of attending a charter school was a slight—but statistically significant—negative impact for both math and reading gains (CREDO 2009, 3, 22).
When CREDO updated its research in 2013 it found better news for charter schools, though public schools still had superior math performance, as shown in Figure A. On the whole, however, the authors report that “the overall results show relatively small average impacts of charter school attendance on student academic growth” (CREDO 2013, 63). Indeed, even the subgroups for whom charters appeared to have the most impacts showed very modest differences from their public school peers (Maul and McClelland 2013).