Students attending many of the nation’s 6,900 public charter schools may see unfamiliar faces as they head back to school this year.
Public schools already experience high levels of turnover among educators, but school teachers are leaving charter schools managed by private, for-profit groups at an “alarming” rate, according to a new study published in The Social Science Journal.
Charter schools run by nonprofit groups also have higher turnover rates than regular charter schools, which tend to be run by local school officials and parents rather than “management organizations” that can operate several schools at once.
Public charter schools are publicly funded, but they are run by private or nonprofit groups under a contract or “charter” with a state government or local school district that holds them accountable to certain standards. From 2000 to 2016, the number of public schools operated under charter agreements nationwide increased from 2 to 7 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Previous research has shown that teachers tend to leave their jobs at traditional public schools at lower rates than charters, and the study examines how working conditions at different types of charter schools lead to higher rates of teacher turnover. This matters because the financial cost of turnovers to schools is high, and inconsistency among educators can dampen the quality of the education that students receive.
Christine Roch, an associate professor of public management and co-author of the study, said teachers take their knowledge about students and their families, as well as expertise in working within the school’s curriculum and practices with them when they leave. This means that inconsistency among educators can have negative impacts on academic outcomes.
“That’s kind of an issue for students and a lack of stability for the school,” Roch told Truthout.
Roch said half a million teachers leave public schools of all types every year, either for jobs at other schools or a different career path altogether. With so many teachers leaving classrooms, the rates of teacher attrition at charters especially “alarming.”
“Teachers in charter schools are more likely to leave than teachers in public schools, but when teachers work for these management organizations — which are taking over a larger and larger portion of charter schools — teachers are even more likely to leave them,” Roch told Truthout. “That’s true for the ones that are managed by private companies, but also the ones managed by the nonprofits.”
Using national data from a federal school staffing survey taken during 2011-2012 school year, the most recent data available for study’s scope and statistical models, Roch’s team found that teachers working at charter schools run by for-profit groups were 38 percent more likely to quit their jobs and leave the profession altogether compared to teachers working at regular charter schools. At charters run by nonprofit management groups, the odds of attrition were 24 percent higher than regular charters.
They also found the odds of a teacher leaving for a job at another school were 97 percent higher for teachers working under for-profit managers and 58 percent higher for teachers with nonprofit managers.
Federal data for the 2012 to 2013 school year show that teachers at all types of charter schools leave their jobs at higher rates than teachers at traditional public schools. (A researcher with the National Center for Education Statistics told Truthout that teacher “mobility and attrition” statistics for more recent years is not available because the government was unable to gather enough data from teacher surveys.)
For-profit and nonprofit management groups that can operate a number of schools across a local or regional area now run about 44 percent of charter schools across the country, according to the study. Such schools have become flashpoints of controversy as they have replaced traditional public schools, particularly in lower-income urban areas and communities of color where levels of school funding have long failed to meet student needs.
The debate over charters reflects the nation’s broader ideological divide. On one side are free-market think tanks and right-wing ideologues such as Betsy Devos, President Trump’s wealthy and notably unpopular education secretary who made expanding charter schools and voucher programs her political mission. They argue charters promote better educational performance by increasing competition among schools and give parents more “choices” about where to send their kids, all without increasing costs to taxpayers.
However, teachers unions, civil rights groups and racial justice organizations have long seen charter schools as a dangerous step toward privatizing the nation’s public education system. They point to mounting evidence that charters increase inequality and segregation among students. Critics say public charter schools also have extra incentives to squeeze out students with disabilities and behavioral problems in order to maintain the competitive academic standards that proponents use to justify their existence.
So, why do teachers leave charters schools — particularly those under control of for-profit or nonprofit management organizations — at higher rates than others? No one school or school district is exactly alike, and charter organizations often create their own standards and curriculums, so the answer is complicated.
For starters, charters tend to hire younger and less experienced teachers, often to keep down costs, according to the study. This can contribute to higher turnover rates, particularly if the teachers entered the profession through an alternative certification program, such as Teach for America. Teachers at for-profit charter schools also tend to receive less support from administrators.
In some parts of the US, charter schools have replaced traditional public schools in underserved areas, and charter schools run by nonprofit groups tend to enroll lower-income students. Such students may pose more social and behavioral challenges for teachers. However, privately run charters have incentives to enroll fewer low-income students, students with disabilities and students learning English as a second language, which helps create a less demanding work environment for teachers.
Then there is pay, and as recent teacher-led labor uprisings against educational austerity in states like Oklahoma and Arizona have shown, salaries for teachers continue to be contentious issue. Teachers at for-profit charter schools also tend to make less money than teachers at regular charter schools, not to mention traditional public schools, according to the study.
The vast majority of charter school teachers are not unionized, and rates of unionization at for-profit charters are extremely low. This leaves few avenues to bargain for higher pay. Roch said public school teachers who are members of unions tend to be “more satisfied” with their pay.
Interestingly, the most recent federal data show that nearly the same percentage of teachers at charter schools and traditional public schools are unsatisfied with their current salaries — nearly 55 percent.
Roch said charter school management organizations create a greater hierarchy among school employees and often take a “cookie-cutter approach” to creating curriculums across the various schools they control in order to increase efficiency. This can leave teachers with less freedom to design their own lesson plans and less say in how the school is run.
“If teachers don’t have control in the classrooms or in the school, they are more likely to want to leave the profession,” Roch said.
Despite the ideological debate around education funding, it’s important not to lump all schools into the same box, including charters. Consider Black River Public School, a nonprofit charter school in Holland, Michigan. The school’s charter is part of a broader system run by Grand Valley State University and dates back to 1996, making the school one of the oldest charters in that part of the country.
Peter Middleton, an art and art history teacher at Black River, said his school operates in a different environment than the highly scrutinized charters in struggling areas of Detroit, for example, which have seen academic performance plunge as students left the area and starved schools of per-pupil public funding.
“I think that charter schools are a cheaper solution for trying to fix schools in districts where there is a lot of attrition of the student population, so you have people moving out of [the] inner city and you end up with blight and poverty going up,” Middleton told Truthout. “Those regions can’t afford traditional schools, so charter schools are a cheaper option.”
Middleton said there are pros and cons to working at Black River. He came to the school because he is allowed a significant amount of autonomy in the classroom and works closely with administrators. However, he is paid less than less-experienced teachers working at the traditional public school down the street, and the school offers him a new contract each year rather than the job security of tenure. Still, the school is willing to work with teachers who underperform, and contracts are renewed year after year.
Things are different for students, too. The school does not provide busing, and students walk or get rides from their parents to get to school. The school has a lottery and a waiting list; students are not guaranteed enrollment just because they live in the community, unlike the traditional public schools nearby.
Middleton said public school teachers face many of the same challenges regardless of the type of school they work for: large classrooms, the cost of teaching supplies and meeting the demands of standardized testing. When asked what he would suggest to policy makers, Middleton said teachers simply need the resources to “do what they need to do in the classroom.”