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Why Charter Schools Are Foolish Investments for States Facing Economic Challenges

South Carolina’s children deserve data-based and lean school reform policy, and not advocacy-based experiments.

A new report calling for South Carolina to increase the state’s investment in charter schools comes as the state still is struggling to recover from the economic downturn and continues to invest heavily in education reform driven by new standards and high-stakes testing.

Before investing further in charter schools, South Carolina must consider the full picture now becoming clear about how charter schools perform, notably when compared to traditional public schools.

Advocates tend to argue that charter schools provide competition for floundering public schools and high-performing options for parents. However, national studies repeatedly have shown that charter schools produce about the same measurable outcomes as public schools while also demonstrating some disturbing consequences:

  • Charter schools tend to segregate students by race and class. 
  • Charter schools under-serve special-needs students, English-language learners and the highest poverty students — all populations that require significant proportions of public school budgets.
  • Charter schools contribute to student and teacher churn by creating revolving doors for students and teachers between charter schools and traditional public schools, which are under added pressure of always accepting students leaving those charter schools.

The picture in South Carolina is no better, especially when charter schools are compared directly with public schools sharing similar populations, as defined by the state Education Department on school report cards.

I did an analysisof charter school report cards for 2011 and 2013, using the metric “Schools with Students Like Ours,” and found that charter schools are overwhelmingly performing about the same as or worse than our public schools. For example, when a charter school receives an absolute rating of “excellent” and public “schools with students like ours” tend to score “excellent,” I rated that charter school “typical.”

In 2011, three of 53 charter schools scored higher than was typical for “Schools with Students Like Ours,” 17 scored the same and 33 scored below. This year, two scored above typical, 20 scored the same and 22 below.

What this means is that charter schools are creating problems related to funding, student and teacher churn, re-segregation of schools and increased stress on the public school system while not producing better measurable outcomes than those that state leaders and the public use to criticize our regular public schools.

This makes it hard to justify the recommendations from the Charter School Facilities Initiative to provide more funding for facilities, which are incredibly expensive and incur ongoing maintenance expenses. In other words, to add brick-and-mortar costs to the state’s ongoing investment in charter schools is making far more than a one-year commitment to models that simply have not performed as advertised.

South Carolina faces some of the most complex and burdensome challenges to state budgets and public school systems — the rising new majority of impoverished children and families.

Experimentation is a luxury the state cannot afford, especially when we have significant evidence that the experiment is floundering at best, and detrimental to our goals at worst.

If charter schools are attractive because they remain public while giving schools autonomy and distance from bureaucracy, we should simply offer the same sort of options to our regular public schools while designing a plan to fully and equitably fund those schools, many of which need facilities investments that will be delayed yet again if the state continues to experiment instead of making evidence-based decisions about our schools and our public funds.

South Carolina deserves data-based and lean school reform policy, and not advocacy-based experiments that clearly fail to achieve the outcomes advocates have promised.

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