School’s Out: Have Charter Schools Succeeded?
Has the experimental nature of charter schools benefited the overall public school system? Charter schools, a facet of the “school choice” movement of the late 1990s and 2000s, are public schools that can either be for-profit, or non-profit, and are operated by private organizations but are also able to draw from public funds. Charter schools are named for the charter they work under. Charter schools that show improved student achievement have their charters renewed and are exempt from certain traditional public-school regulations. The first charter school opened its doors in 1992 in St. Paul, Minnesota.1 Charter school enrollment has grown steadily since, with 3.2 million students now attending over 7,000 charter schools, accumulating to about 6 percent of public-school enrollees.2 The uptake in enrollment has encouraged for-profit organizations, such as Edison Schools which already control much of the schools nationwide; these investors are eyeing charter schools as a potential 600-billion-dollar market.3 However, charter schools have yet to show rewarding and successful results in the public-school sector due to conflicting information, fiscal problems, location, faculty retention, and impact on segregation. Only 17 percent of charter schools have surpassed traditional schools in terms of student achievement and academic performance. Additionally, 37 percent are underperforming.4 There are many problems within the public school system, and the implementation of charter schools 30 years ago has worsened the flaws within our system.
Table: Charter Schools compared to Traditional Schools
One of the major flaws of the charter school system stems from the conflicting information available within different sectors and states. State to state and urban to non-urban, these schools vary increasingly. For example, charter schools in Florida have shown an increase in a student’s college enrollment, persistence, and future earnings, suggesting that these schools do fulfill their experimental purpose. On the other hand, charter schools in Texas provide drastically different statistics. Studies in Texas found that charter schools have little effect on college enrollment and negatively affected future earnings. In these studies, these charter schools failed to succeed in their goals of improving student performance as compared to a traditional public school. These studies from both Florida and Texas demonstrate that it is increasingly hard to gauge how successful these schools are due to significant variations from region to region.5
A school’s location matters in its success and performance. For charter schools, location is one of the dominant factors in determining whether the school is likely to succeed. Charter schools have been shown to be the most successful in urban areas. They also have substantial success in helping disadvantaged students within these urban areas. For example, one year of attending a charter school in Boston or Denver led to increases in achievement of 0.3 to 0.4 standard deviations for students. The major problem in all the success is that only 15 percent of all charter schools are in urban areas.6 However, charter schools in some urban areas have returned results back to the mean of traditional schools.7 Due to the large cost of building or chartering these schools, the declining statistics, and budgeting constraints within public school systems, it is hard to envision an increase in these testing numbers. It is also worth noting that 85 percent of charter schools located in non-urban areas where could not replicate the initial successful testing rates, either. Additionally, a 2020 study has reported that suburban and rural charter schools perform worse in math than traditional public schools. The same study found suburban and rural charter schools have English scores that are not significantly different from traditional public schools.8 Charter schools have been shown to be successful in some areas, but does that mean that they should be considered successful in general, especially with the financial burdens they inflict on other schools and their system?
Financially, charter schools can have detrimental effects on the local school systems in which they are located. Charter schools are funded at the same per-pupil ratio in terms of operating costs as traditional public schools. Equality means that traditional schools are at a loss because they lose money they would have had from students and gain nothing from these changes. Thus, public schools lose money because of the division of available funds. In addition to charter schools financially burdening local school systems due to the share of students lost to charters, they are also unfeasible for local school systems due to the administrative difficulties that districts face when needing to adjust various components of their education budgets, and the overall loss of the types of students who switch from traditional public schools to charter schools.9 All these factors make the fight for resources even harder for already-burdened school systems. A 2018 study for urban and non-urban districts in North Carolina found that charter schools impose fiscal burdens on local districts primarily because the districts cannot easily reduce their spending in proportion to the revenue losses associated with the outflow of students to charter schools.10
Charter schools fail not only students but also their faculty. For institutions intended to create exceptional students and lessen the achievement gap, charter schools have only been able to keep hold of teachers for about 2.3 years on average. The turnover costs are gargantuan, as this drawback can lead to damaged morale in both students and faculty, and replacing teachers can be expensive. One major leader in the charter sector, YES Prep, dismissed turnover as an issue, indicating an acceptance of the current system of mass turnover. Even with all these negatives, the sector has failed to retain teachers, and mass turnover can be detrimental to the student body. The turnover can cause students to become alienated and even hinder their future college aspirations, as they may not have the necessary recommendations for a college application due to a teacher’s departure. Thus, faculty turnover can become a handicap to the purpose of the charter school sector and its aim to increase student achievement.
Charter schools succeed more often when they have expensive-to-educate students, such as students with special needs. However, many charter schools attempt to dissuade parents, especially those with the most severe of disabilities, from enrolling their children into their schools, causing traditional schools to have to take the majority of expensive-to-educate students without any improved benefits. For similar reasons, charter schools dissuade and/or are disproportionately unlikely to enroll students with low English fluency, as well as economically disadvantaged students, which means that traditional schools typically retain students with more educational and behavioral needs, which make education more difficult in these schools when also considering all the burdens charter schools place on local school systems. Many charter schools will attempt to reject the types of students discussed, instead opting to provide compensation for a private institution for these students to attend.11 Another issue with charter schools is the fact many charter schools have disbanded due to financial problems, causing an outflow of these students into traditional public schools.12
Another problem that has been attributed to charter schools is an increase in segregation. The inclusion of charter schools has caused a 5 to 7 percent increase in segregation, as researchers Tomás Monnarraz, Brian Kisida, and Matthew Chingos report.13 There are many reasons for these statistics. For instance, white students are more prone to transfer to charter schools with a higher white proportion than their district’s traditional public school. Black students have also been shown to attend charter schools in the same trend.14 Charter schools have only been proven to have lowered segregation in districts with high minority populations such as Milwaukee, Little Rock, and Chicago, which has been attributed to minority families’ ability to choose in these instances.15 Charter schools have also disrupted desegregation efforts, with an example being Charlotte-Mecklenburg County in North Carolina, where recent efforts to decrease segregation and create balance through new assignment zones and busing have been undermined by the fear that these initiatives would simply cause more white suburban families within the district to switch to charter schools.16 Thus, charter schools can affect desegregation efforts, even if their institution in a district may be well-intended. Lastly, charter schools contribute to economic segregation since many charter schools do not offer transportation nor access to free food.17 All of these factors can make these schools inaccessible to low-income students.
Charter schools are experimental by nature and by charter, and due to this, many of these schools have failed. Many have closed due to problems such as low scores, or due to insufficient financing. These schools have had a major effect on the public school system in their 30-year history. While some of these schools, predominantly in urban areas, have succeeded in improving student test scores and outcomes, many have failed or have not seen any change. In fact, 83 percent of these schools have either performed at the same level or lower than traditional schools.18 Can that be considered successful for a system that has been around for 30 years? Charter schools have yet to show rewarding and successful results in the public-school sector due to conflicting information, fiscal problems, location, faculty retention, and impact on segregation. Has the charter school experiment gone on for too long, or should it continue? Is it time to use what has been beneficial and use those methods and funds to benefit traditional public schools? There are many problems with the public school system, but these are pressing questions that need to be addressed by the 40 states that still institute and support charter schools.
Ciment, James and Roger Chapman. 03/17/2015. Culture Wars in America : An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices Routledge.
Cohodes, Sarah. “Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap.” The Future of Children. Princeton University, March 29, 2019. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/720687.
Decker, Paul, and Philip M Gleason. “How Charter Schools Threaten the Public Interest.” Wiley Online Library, August 16, 2 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/pam.22163.
Monarrez, Tomas, Brian Kisida, and Matthew M. Chingos. 2019. “Do Charter Schools Increase Segregation?” Education Next 19 (4) (Fall). http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/do-charter-schools-increase-segregation/docview/2309282578/se-2.
Wilson, Robert. “Robert Wilson Photos, Images, Assets.” Adobe Stock. Accessed April 17, 2022. https://stock.adobe.com/contributor/201151967/robert-wilson?load_type=author&prev_url=detail.
Gulosino, Charisse, and Jonah Liebert . “Examining Variation within the Charter School Sector: Academic Achievement in Suburban, Urban, and Rural Charter Schools.” Taylor & Francis Online. Peabody Journal of Education, July 20, 2020. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0161956X.2020.1776074.
Fusco, Mark. “Burnout factories: The challenge of retaining great teachers in charter schools.” The Phi Delta Kappan, May 2017. https://www.jstor.org/stable/i26388216.
Naclerio, Michael A. “Accountability through Procedure? Rethinking Charter School Accountability and Special Education Rights.” Columbia Law Review, June 2017. https://www.columbialawreview.org/content/accountability-through-procedurerethinking-charter-school-accountability-and-special-education-rights/.