House Conservatives Charter Ideology Over Educational Reality

The House is poised to vote on legislation that would increase federal support for charter schools and would encourage states to authorize new charter schools. The “Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act” represents the latest triumph of ideology over reality in public education.

The legislation, according to a statement by the Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, would “provide states more incentives to support the development and expansion of successful charter schools. Additionally, the legislation will increase support for charter school quality, ensuring taxpayer dollars are being used effectively to promote improved student achievement.”

It would give federal funding priority to states that repeal limits on the number of charter schools that can be chartered or the percentage of the state's school-age population attending charters. It would also give priority funding to states that finance charter schools at a level comparable to public school funding. And it contains assistance to charter schools to help with construction or repair costs.

We've had 20 years of experience in charter schools since the concept was born in Minnesota in the early 1990s, and what we've learned in that time is that charter schools are not a panacea. “The media regularly covers great charter schools, and news stories about low-performing public schools abound,” notes the Education Justice website. “It would be easy to conclude that charter schools are, on average, better than public schools. It would also be wrong.”

On the contrary, a Stanford University study of charter schools in 16 states found that “17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.”

That's right: Less than one in five charter schools proved better than their neighborhood public schools, while more than one-third were “significantly worse.” Nonetheless, Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., pushed a bill that would encourage the creation of more charter schools. Earlier today, he touted this bill as part of a “reform” agenda that includes a “new priorities in education spending” bill that does little more than eliminate funding for 42 specialized public education initiatives.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten raises several valid concerns about the charter school bill:

By focusing on expansion over quality, the bill gives short shrift to the incontrovertible evidence that states which allow unfettered expansion of charters have experienced ongoing problems with quality and mismanagement—including financial mismanagement.

The proposed legislation does not adequately ensure that charter schools are accessible to all students on an equal basis. While the bill includes language that attempts to address the acknowledged problem that many charter schools do not equitably serve students with disabilities and English language learners, it has no teeth that would, for example, enforce a requirement for charter schools to enroll these students in percentages comparable to those of non-charter schools in their district.

… “Finally, [the legislation] does not go far enough in establishing adequate requirements for authorizing, oversight, monitoring and closing low-performing charters. Nor does it provide an appropriate role for local education agencies (LEAs) and communities to have meaningful input in decisions about charter schools. In addition, the bill does not do enough to require the operations of charter schools to be transparent and fully disclosed to the public.”

The American Association of School Administrators also wondered why “the bill extends federal support to fund construction/renovation costs for charter schools in a manner/at a level not provided to traditional public schools.” It would be interesting to contrast this legislation's provisions for supporting charter school construction and repairs with the reaction to President Obama's plan to funnel federal dollars to fixing dilapidated public schools around the country.

Charter schools in theory offer great opportunities to test new ideas and launch specialized education programs. But conservatives have used them as a cudgel to dismantle public education, opening the way for corporations and religious institutions to replace the “public” in education.

Results don't seem to matter to Hunter and the conservatives leading this agenda. “Today's charter school theory says unions block schools from firing bad teachers and paying good ones more, so if we eliminate the union, we'll improve outcomes for kids. But the hypothesis hasn't panned out,” wrote Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, in USA Today. Eight out of nine charter schools nationwide are non-union, he noted, adding that “non-unionized Southern public schools have never done particularly well, and the lack of teacher voice in charters means substantially higher teacher turnover, which is bad for students.”

Conservative charter school advocates frequently target low- and moderate-income families with a pitch that they should have a choice between a public school and a competing charter school. But as Freddie deBoer writes on the Balloon Juice blog, “talking about choice as if it is a benefit regardless of the objective reality of whether the choices are beneficial is bizarre. And the idea that tax dollars should pay for that choice, in that absence of evidence as to why, is just a bridge too far.”

The elements that make for a successful school—whether public, charter or private—include good teachers, effective administration, engaged parents, a supportive socioeconomic environment, children ready to learn and adequate resources. The right-wing fixation on creating more charter schools, while waging war on public schools, diverts precious resources and attention away from the more fundamental work that must be done to improve the quality of education for every child.