Data suggests charter schools may not be educational panacea

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Dr. D. Jackson Maxwell

There has been much ado of late about charter schools. Over the past few years, this option has become increasingly embraced in Memphis. By the RAND Corporation’s definition, charters are publicly funded and operated schools outside the direct control of the district in which they exist. They have a great deal of autonomy concerning their curriculum, instruction, and management. While the majority of charters are run by nonprofits or universities, a quarter are operated by for profit organizations. By parental choice, students join these quasi-independent systems rather than attend their district assigned schools.

Charter Schools have been around for 20 years or so and have expanded to over 40 states serving about 2 million students comprising 4% of U.S. public school students. As reported by the online education news web site Chalkbeat (April 4, 2014), Shelby County Schools (SCS) are no exception. We will have 41 charter schools with 12,000 of our 117,000 students attending these institutions in the 2014-2015 school year. An additional 6,000 students will attend an Achievement School District (ASD) endorsed charter school. This comes to nearly 5 percent of all SCS students.

Parents with school-aged children are familiar with charter schools due to their prolific mailings. Their professionally produced pamphlets look wonderful, but are charters really as good as they claim? The fact is that while there has been a great deal of antidotal talk about the superiority of charter versus public schools, the reality is that research does not corroborate this widely held belief. The same is true for private schools, according to educational researcher and author Jack Schneider, who writes on the web site TakePart that “private schools are often outperformed by their public counterparts … private schools don’t appear to add as much value as one might assume they do.”

Research has repeatedly found that charters do not outperform public schools. Education Justice News in the 2010 article “Charter School Achievement: Hype vs. Evidence,” states that, on average, charter schools do not “show greater levels of student achievement, typically measured by standardized test scores, than public schools, and may even perform worse.” The 2009 Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) study found that overall 17 percent of charter schools performed better than equivalent public schools while 37 percent of these same charters performed worse than similar public schools. While 25 percent of charter schools performed better than public schools in reading, 75 percent scored equal or worse. As for mathematics, 29 percent of charters scored significantly better while 31 percent scored significantly worse.

Who are attending these charters? A study by the New Jersey Education Association, as reported by Stan Karp, found that charters are having an overall negative effect on local schools in Newark. The charters are skimming off the better prepared students and the activist parents while not providing better educational results. Public schools on the other hand are left to deal with English as a Second Language, severely handicapped, and highest need students with increasingly smaller budgets as charters drain off funding. Yet even with these significant challenges, studies repeatedly show public schools perform at least equal to charter schools. What’s up with that? 

The article,“Study: Majority of U.S. Charter Schools Perform Equal or Worse than Traditional Schools” in Deseret News (June 24, 2013) by Benjamin Woods more or less sums up my thoughts on why parents choose charter or private over public schools. Woods reports that parents choosing charters are dissatisfied with their zoned public school offering. The parents want a choice and charters provide this. However, the article alludes to an issue that persistently haunts charters — they are not diverse. The fact is, whether you are considering race, culture or religion, the majority of charter and private schools are rather homogeneous.

As stated earlier, charter schools are tax-payer funded but exist outside the normal strictures of public school governance. While the concept of charters is now in vogue, the reality of their performance versus public schools is in doubt. As CREDO’s lead author says, “We’ve got a two-to-one margin of bad charters to good charters … That’s a red flag.” Also, keep in mind that SCS students have another choice—the 40+ optional schools. Optional schools on average outperform Tennessee public schools that in turn outperform the charters. 

My advice to you is to do your due diligence. Research the schools you are considering for your children. Do a walk through while classes are in session. Ask probing questions and, most importantly, make sure you know what you are really signing your kids up for. Do not be fooled by the hype. Glossy pamphlets are pretty, but results are what matter in today’s data driven educational world. In the end, be sure you are making the right academic choices for your children.

Dr. D. Jackson Maxwell is an educator at Grahamwood Elementary School with over 30 years of teaching experience and has been a freelance writer for 20 years. Please forward questions or comments to: djacksonmaxwell@gmail.com   

Author: LampLighter

The voice of Cooper-Young, a vibrant, diverse neighborhood to live, work and play, in the heart of Midtown Memphis, Tennessee.

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