During last month’s midterm elections, education reform was a big issue in many races across the nation. The creation of more charter schools is at the core of most “reformist” agendas, but despite many success stories and the attraction to parents of “school choice,” the idea that charter schools are some sort of silver bullet that will alone improve educational outcomes may seriously undermine the provision of quality public education for all students, especially those who are disadvantaged, minority, or speak English as a second language.
There are about 7,000 charter schools in 42 states and the District of Columbia that operate as autonomous public schools, freeing them from many of the procedural requirements of school districts. They range from small, independent, not-for-profit elementary schools to multimillion-dollar, statewide virtual academies with thousands of students. It’s logical to believe that independently managed schools can better adapt to the learning requirements of diverse communities than schools which are centrally directed. However, it seems that the charter school movement is being hijacked by activists more interested in weakening teachers’ collective bargaining strength than providing diverse educational options.
Unfortunately, some supporters of charter schools see them as a way to wrest power and funding from school districts and teacher unions. Between 2009 and 2012, the share of charter schools implementing performance-based compensation increased from 19 to 37%, while the percentage that is unionized decreased from twelve to seven.
supporters of charter schools see them as a way to wrest
power and funding from school
districts and teacher unions.”
In California, a record $50 million was spent on a battle between two Democrats with pretty similar agendas but different approaches to charter schools. The eventual winner, Tony Thurmond (see p. 11), follows the “proceed with caution” approach when it comes to charters, whereas his rival, Marshall Tuck, is a big supporter of charters unless they are for profit.
New governors—many of them Democrats—are expected to propose ambitious budgets with new ways of funding their K–12 systems. This fresh crop of governors and state board members will likely lead to big turnover of state school superintendents in places where they are appointed and to calls for the creation of more charter schools.
In Nevada (see p. 10), there have been recent calls to overhaul the education funding formula to generate more money for certain students, like English language learners, those with disabilities, gifted and talented students, and children from low-income families.
Charter schools have provided a valuable opportunity for educational innovation, and many have become shining examples of excellence. This is especially true of the many dual-language charter schools that have been created over the last few years to meet the needs of students who are multilingual or want to be. Indeed, the fundamental concept that independently managed charter schools are better positioned to serve the needs of a diverse student population than their traditional counterparts seems unquestionable. However, charter schools come in many forms—some are even for profit—and there is little evidence to support the claim that they are more successful than other schools. Our educational challenges are not going to be overcome by simply changing the management structure of our school systems, but charter schools can and should be part of the solution as long as teachers’ rights are not restricted and adequate funding is directed to the students most in need.