So What Exactly Are Charter Schools?

I don’t know about your neighborhood, but in mine, there are more charter schools than regular ones. It definitely seems like they’re the new norm. In fact, they’re so ubiquitous that I can’t help but feeling that they’re just a fancy new name for just a plain old public school. But with one important difference… they’re kind of parent-run. And that’s somehow very exciting and terribly scary. So how did this enormous change in public education take place?

The History of Charter Schools

The idea behind charter schools came from Albert Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers, in 1988. His plan was that charter schools would be run as financially and legally autonomous businesses outside the public school’s rules and regulations. They are free public schools but are also free to design themselves as profit-making schools. Shanker’s idea was that there would be no tuition, religious affiliation, or selective student admissions. Each school was to be accountable to its individual charter of educational philosophy and practices.

“The rules and structure of charter schools depend on state authorizing legislation, and differ from state to state. A charter school is authorized to function once it has received a charter, a statutorily defined performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success,” states the K12 Academics education website.

Innovative Education

The two guiding principles of the charter school idea is that they are independent from public school rules and regulations, and that they provide innovative education of some type. For example, there are charter schools that specialize in business, science, creative arts, journalism, classical academies; even spiritually-oriented charter schools like those that follow the Waldorf philosophy.

Whatever the focus, they are supposed to achieve superior educational outcomes to justify their independence from school district rules and regulations. The recent Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) Urban Charter Schools Report found that urban charter schools across the country achieve higher student success in both math and reading than their public school counterparts.

Other CREDO studies have found mixed achievement results in non-urban charter schools. So if you’re considering a charter school education, you should definitely research the academic successes and failures of your particular school as well as its financial management details, keeping in mind that there is a lot of fraud and mismanagement reported in charter schools.

Some Great Charter Schools; Others Not So Much

It’s no wonder that research is showing mixed results after 28 years. If every school has its own charter, its own priorities, its own governing body, etc.... well then, there isn’t really very much uniformity or consistency across charter schools. There are some very noteworthy charter school systems. For example, at the IDEA Charter Schools in Texas, the parent organization runs 44 public schools with the phenomenal record of 99.9% of its students going on to college for the last nine years. Their charter states an “unwavering commitment” to college preparation for all its students.

But there are also other charter schools that are really in the control of a handful of parents, concerned more with specific opportunities for their own children rather than on a great educational institution at the service of all.

More Educational Dollars… But Where Does It Go?

At pretty much every charter school, you can expect a considerable amount of fundraising. Ideally, your contributions would go to hiring more qualified teachers, improving the campus, and adding value to the curriculum. That said, before signing up for a school, you should make sure that your priorities are in line with the decision-making committee’s. For example, if the committee is bent on procuring electronic devices for the classroom and you would rather see the kids interacting actively with the physical world, well, then there’s a problem there. But if you find a school where your philosophies are aligned, you’ll know your financial contributions are well spent.

On the other side of the picture are stories about fraud and waste in many charter school systems. The government has spent $3.5 billion on its Charter Schools Program since the early 1990’s and has recently come under scrutiny for mismanagement of funds. The Center for Media and Democracy has documented charter schools illegal use of more than $200 million. Critics of the charter school system point out that it is tailor-made for funneling federal money into for-profit consulting firms that charge large fees for charter school business management services. So who exactly is running your school?

For-Profit or Not-For-Profit?

According to The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 67% of charter schools are non-profit, independently run, single site schools. Another 20% are run by non-profit organizations that govern many schools, and 13% are for-profit enterprises. The Alliance states that “for-profit charter schools have to meet financial oversight regulations, just like any company the government contracts with to provide a service.” Despite these statements, it was found, for example, that in Michigan 65% of the charter schools are run by for-profit companies.

Non-profit charter schools may also be very profitable indeed for their management, according to a recent report by Alan Singer, author of Education Flashpoints: Fighting for America’s Schools. Some non-profit charter school management companies are funded by major economic conglomerates such as Walmart and the Gates Foundation. Some charter school management executives earn salaries in the $200,000 to half a million dollar a year range. The money goes disproportionately to management rather than to more qualified educators.

Charter Schools and Common Core Standards

If you’re looking for a truly independent and innovative education from a charter school, you may end up disappointed. Common Core Standards (CCS) are currently being implemented into the charter school systems. They are tied to funding opportunities from the Federal government, which makes Common Core very hard to resist. One organization driving this forward is the National Charter School Resource Center, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education.

Their website carries lots and lots of advice about how charter schools can upgrade their technology to support the new computer-based testing and assessment schedules in Common Core. They recommend that charter schools get started building on their existing instructional style for a Common Core-aligned curriculum.

It’s All about the Teaching

Studies on educational outcomes do not support the idea that standards (such as Common Core Standards) automatically improve learning. It’s about the quality of the teaching. This was confirmed recently in a study of the world’s top educational systems, conducted by McKinsey & Company. No matter what the educational system or philosophy, children respond to humane, caring, respectful, intelligent, well-trained teachers.

Buyer Beware

Education has become a consumer issue for parents. We have to “read the labels” and investigate schools before we buy into one of them. It’s a much, much bigger responsibility than it used to be. Yet, at the end of the day, what matters most is the same as it was for each of us growing up… Did you get a good teacher this year?

What are your thoughts on charter schools?

Tags : education   school   charter schools   common core   

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