5 Pros And Cons Of Charter Schools, From An Education Policy Expert

An even-handed look at the most passionate debate in education.

by Adam Bulger
Originally Published: 
Three children at a charter school looking at tablets together.
Klaus Vedfelt/Getty

If you want to lob a grenade into public education debate, try bringing up charter schools. Proponents rhapsodize over the choice and opportunities these schools offer to parents. Opponents will gnash their teeth about hedge fund managers and fraud. It’s a bigger debate than the whole who’s-a-robot-and-who’s-not thing in Westworld.

As with most things, the truth about charters is more complicated than the debate about them. First off, what are they? These are independently managed, publicly funded schools established under charter agreements between the schools and states. There are currently 7,000 serving three million kids in 43 states. And, although several networks manage multiple schools, most are independent.

Second, why do people feel so strongly? That’s for charter school policy expert and Senior Director of the National Charter Schools Resource Center, Alex Medler, to address. He stresses not all these institutions are the same. Some focus on high-achieving students; others seek to rehabilitate kids with checkered histories. And, he gets it. Medler sees great benefits to them — but also understands why you’re carrying a pitchfork and torch. Charters have been taken to task for sapping public schools of much-needed funding, exposed for high-level corruption, and condemned for racial bias.

Here are some of Medler’s measured points for and against charter schools:

Pros Of Charter School

1. A Choice For A New Generation

Medler points to the fact that charters are designed to give parents more choices. That doesn’t mean necessarily mean better, but for informed parents willing to do research, the institutions represent a chance to find the right educational experience for their kids. “You shouldn’t assume that because it’s a charter school that it’s better or worse than a neighborhood school,” he says. “You should find out how it’s doing. And then find out how it’s doing with kids with your child’s needs.”

2. The Perks Of Private Schools, Minus Tuition

While charters are funded largely by tax dollars, they have more independence than neighborhood public schools. Charter schools need to hire licensed teachers, administer state-mandated tests, and can be closed for under-performance. That independence also allows them to offer specialized courses and approaches that neighborhood schools can’t. Medler and advocates say parents and kids at charters tend to be more enthusiastic about education because they’ve chosen the school.

3. They’re Chock Full Of Innovation

Is your kid brilliant but can’t sit still at a desk long enough to read a textbook? A charter could help. “Let’s say you want an expeditionary learning, project-based school, and the district-based school doesn’t do that…but the charter school does,” says Medler. In theory, that would be better for everyone.

4. Some Charters Are Honor Students

A 2015 study of charter schools in 41 urban regions by Stanford University found that charter students gain an average of 40 days of additional learning each year in math and 28 additional days of learning per year in reading compared to their counterparts in urban neighborhood schools. “Success Academy’s results are off the charts,” Medler said. “KIPP, the largest charter network in the country, has strong rigorous research showing them off the charts good as well. There are really strong nonprofit network results.”

5. Important People Love Them

While neighborhood public schools living from bake sale to bake sale, some of the richest and most powerful people and organizations in America are lining up to support charters. Major donors include the Walton Family Foundation and Bill Gates. And they aren’t alone in thinking charters are the future of education. Since charters were first established in the early 90s, every American president, from Clinton to Trump, has supported them.

Cons Of Charter School

1. Corruption May Reign Supreme

In 2015 and 2016, regional and national newspapers ran exposés and editorials about the deplorable classroom conditions and corrupt mismanagement of several charter schools. The Akron Beacon Journal found that Ohio charter schools misspend public money nearly four times more often than any other type of taxpayer-funded agency. The Sun Sentinel reported that a Florida school operator received $450,000 in tax dollars to open two charter schools months after his first school collapsed. And an investigation by the Detroit Free Press found massive corruption in the Michigan charter system.

2. Virtual Charters Are A Real Failure

Some charters are set up online, with classes taking place virtually. And while plopping a kid down in front of a virtual school cuts down on a lot of education costs, it also cuts down on a lot of education. “The virtual and cyber charter schools have been shown to be very bad,” Medler says, adding their performance standards are very low. Plus, you saw what happened in The Lawnmower Man.

3. They Could Be A Huge Tax Dodge

The powerful folks funding charter schools aren’t doing it entirely out of the goodness of their hearts. Investors enjoy considerable tax advantages thanks to a tax credit established by President Clinton. Those funding charter schools benefit from a 39 percent credit on contributions over a seven-year period. They also have the ability to collect interest on the money they contribute. A fund could double its investment in seven years, and the credit can be combined with other breaks without limit. (See point number one.)

4. They Make It Difficult For Public Schools

Critics say charters steal top students from public schools — and actively keep problem students away. It’s said they do this via difficult application processes and declining to participate in lower-income friendly programs like school-subsidized lunches. And because they steal high-achievers, district schools receive less money while still having to pay the same overhead costs as before. The school’s reputation also suffers because test scores fall.

5. Charter School Teachers Could Be Getting A Raw Deal

Although pay is lower overall in charters, Medler says novice teachers are paid more on average, and that charter teachers provide more opportunities for professional development. However, critics like former assistant education secretary Diane Ravitch paint a different picture. She’s said that because charters are private, they’re exempt from labor and disciplinary policy laws. “In most charter schools,” Ravitch wrote. “young teachers work 50, 60, or 70 hours a week. Teacher turnover is high, given the hours and intensity of the work.”

It’s up to parents to decide if these new public/private classrooms are the best path forward for their children, or if these places are more interest in their bottom line. Because as much as everyone fights about charter schools, nobody wants their kid to have a crappy education.

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