Charter Schools: A Call for Civil Discourse


By Michael Pelle.

Charter schools have quickly become the most inflammatory topic in education policy since their appearance in the 1990s. National charter school enrollment increased from 0.3 to 1.8 million between 2000 and 2010, while advocates and opponents have become increasingly polarized. This policy debate reflects a larger trend in American politics, where emotion and ivory-tower ideology trump reason and empirical evidence, leading only to gridlock and educational shortcomings. 

Supporters celebrate charter schools as the panacea to all of our nation’s educational struggles, from integration to the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps. In stark contrast, challengers decry the movement as a veiled effort to privatize public education that exacerbates inequality and segregation. The rhetoric has become so vitriolic that both sides liken the other’s leaders to former governor of Alabama George Wallace, who ardently supported segregation during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. 

The definition of charter schools reveals the absurdity of this over-zealousness. They are autonomous, publically funded schools that define their own curricula and policies through a charter, which serves as a contract with the government. If the state deems that a school has failed to carry out the terms of its charter, it severs funding and the school closes. Such autonomy discredits overgeneralized statements about charter schools, since independence from the bureaucratic public school system leads to profound variety.

Movies such as The Lottery and Waiting for Superman tell heart-breaking stories of impoverished children attempting to escape failing inner-city schools by gaining entrance to charters that boast phenomenal standardized test scores and perfect college acceptance rates. Charter schools cannot select students based upon grades or exam scores, and must hold lotteries when demand exceeds the number of available seats. As expected, only one of the students in each film wins the lottery, leaving the other families profoundly disappointed. The message is clear: the demand for these schools exceeds supply, and thus the solution to all of our educational woes is the creation of more charter schools.

This partisan rhetoric, however, ignores the fact that less than one in five charter schools demonstrate better results than traditional public schools. In study of about 2,500 charter schools, Stanford economist Margaret Raymond determined that only 17% reported greater progress on standardized math tests relative to demographically similar public schools; 46% had similar academic gains and 37% demonstrated worse student achievement. Using standardized scores as the only available basis for comparison, it seems the key to improving public education isn’t simply more charter schools, but rather more successful charter schools.

Charter school opponents have contributed equally to this hyperpolarized and overgeneralized discourse through blanket accusations that charter schools exacerbate segregation. A 2010 UCLA study found that charter school students were more likely to attend racially segregated schools than were traditional public school students, but only briefly mentioned that a disproportionate amount of charter schools are located in urban areas with concentrated minority populations. A RAND Corporation study that controlled for the demographics of charter schools’ surrounding areas found no statistically significant change in the racial makeup of charter versus traditional schools.

Like academic success, however, charter schools’ individual effects upon racial integration vary widely. Voyager Academy, a fourth through eighth grade charter school located just four miles north of Duke, is one such school that blatantly fails to reflect its district’s demographics. About 80% of Voyager’s students are white non-Hispanic, while only 7% fit into this demographic at Holt Elementary School, which is just one mile away.

The UCLA study’s generalized approach invites obvious criticism, and its important points about the risks of increased segregation relative to public schools were lost. More specific examination reveals that states should incorporate provisions into their charter school legislation that prevent segregation. Like traditional public schools, charter schools should be required to provide free and reduced lunches, special education, and English as a Second Language courses to ensure that they don’t become havens for relatively wealthy, white students within racially or socioeconomically diverse areas. States should also institute policies requiring charter schools to advertise their services equally to all students and parents, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, within a reasonable surrounding geographic area. 

The charter school debate’s generalized assertions ignore critical nuances, as both sides attempt to present evidence that leaves no room for commonality. We must transcend this diametric opposition to reach compromises that enhance the education we provide for our nation’s children. Future legislation must focus on ways to alleviate charter schools’ shortcomings by incorporating the ideas of those with valid criticisms, as opposed to blindly calling for more or fewer charters. Underperforming charter schools and those that are racially or socioeconomically segregated must be reformed or, if they fail to demonstrate improvement, closed. If the debate remains plagued by uncompromising attitudes and strategies, those most harmed will be children seeking a decent education. 

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