Charter schools have become one of the most sweeping school reforms in the United States in recent decades. Charter schools seek to reform public education through a blend of elements found in public schools (universal access and public funding) and elements often associated with private schools (choice, autonomy, and flexibility).
While the definition of charter schools varies somewhat by state, essentially they are nonsectarian public schools of choice that are free from many regulations that apply to traditional public schools. The charter agreement establishing a charter school is a performance contract that details, among other things, the school’s mission, program, goals, and means of measuring success. Charters are usually granted for three to five years by an authorizer or sponsor (typically state or local school boards). In some states, public universities or other public entities may also grant charters.
Authorizers hold charter schools accountable for meeting their goals and objectives related to their mission and academic targets. Schools that do not meet their goals and objectives or do not abide by the terms of the contract can have their charter revoked or—when it comes time for renewal—not renewed. Because these are schools of choice and receive funding based on the number of students they enroll, charter schools also are accountable to parents and families who choose to enroll their child in them or choose to leave for another school.
The charter school movement has grown rapidly from two charter schools in Minnesota in 1992 to some 4,000 schools in 41 states and the District of Columbia as of 2010. Despite this impressive growth, charter schools enroll only a few percent of the public school students in the United States. Some estimates suggest that charter schools enroll close to 1 million students in 2010. Although the impact of charter schools appears minimal at the national level, a few states and several cities have seen the proportion of charter school students rise to capture a quarter of all public school students.
Beyond the United States, charter school reforms can be found in Canada and Puerto Rico. The charter school concept is also very similar to reforms initiated in other countries at approximately the same time. The United Kingdom saw the creation of grant-maintained schools, and in New Zealand and Sweden independent schools were initiated. These various reforms are part of a larger set of national and international trends that have sought to restructure public education. Attempts to restructure schools in the 1980s focused largely on decentralization, site-based management, small-scale choice reforms, and the use of market mechanisms. Proponents argued that restructuring public education would make it more efficient and responsive. One of the main reasons for the rapid and widespread growth of the charter movement in the 1990s was that it provided a vehicle to pursue many or most of the goals related to school restructuring. Another reason for the growth of charter schools is that this reform has been championed by a wide range of supporters, from those who saw these schools as a stepping stone to vouchers to those who saw charter schools as a compromise that would avoid vouchers.
How and Why Charter Schools Work
The simplest and most direct way to explain the theory and ideas behind the charter school concept is to discuss it in terms of three key principles, which roughly correspond to three phases within an overall model of change. The three principles or phases are (1) structural change; (2) “opportunity space” or intermediate goals; and (3) outcomes or final goals. Each of these is discussed below.
At the start of any charter school initiative is the effort to bring about policy changes. These are changes in state law that alter the legal, political, and economic environment in which charter schools operate. They are structural changes because they seek to fundamentally alter the conditions under which schools operate. The structural changes provide an opportunity space in which charter schools may experiment. Th us, the charter concept is different from other education reforms in that it does not prescribe specific interventions; rather, it changes the conditions under which schools develop and implement educational interventions.
One of the most important ways in which the charter concept seeks to change schools’ external environments is through choice. Charter schools are schools of choice in that, with some exceptions, students from any district or locale may attend any charter school. Advocates of school choice argue that choice will lead to sorting by preferences, which will reduce the amount of time schools spend resolving conflicts among school stakeholders, leaving them more time and energy to devote to developing and implementing educational programs. Advocates of school choice also argue that the very act of choice will dispose students, parents, and teachers to work harder to support the schools they have chosen.
Another theoretical argument for charter schools is that deregulated and autonomous schools will develop innovations in curriculum, instruction, and governance that will lead to improvements in outcomes. Traditional public schools could also improve by adopting the innovative practices that charter schools are expected to develop.
At the heart of the charter concept lies a bargain. Charter schools will receive enhanced autonomy over curriculum, instruction, and operations. In exchange, they must agree to be held more accountable for results than other public schools. This new accountability holds charter schools accountable for outcomes—many of them articulated in the charter contract—and then employs deregulation to allow them to choose their own means for arriving at those goals. If charter schools do not live up to their stated goals, they can have their charter revoked by their sponsor, or they may not be able to renew the charter when it expires. Another form of accountability charter schools face is market accountability. Because these are schools of choice, and because money follows the students, charter schools that fail to attract and retain students will, in theory, go out of business.
Opportunity Space and Intermediate Goals
The autonomy granted to charter schools provides them with an opportunity space to create and operate schools in new ways. One important opportunity that charter schools have is to create their own governing boards. Charter school governing boards function much as local district school boards. Unlike district school boards, however, charter school boards are appointed rather than elected. Depending on the state, the board members are selected by the sponsor of the school that granted the charter, or they are selected according to specific bylaws approved by the sponsor. This process helps ensure that the charter school can obtain a governing board that is focused and responsive to the specific needs of the school.
Charter school laws limit—to some extent—the opportunity space in which the schools operate by defining a number of intermediate goals. One such intermediate goal found in many states is the enhancement of opportunities for parental and community involvement. Parents who choose schools can be expected to be more engaged than those who do not. Beyond that, proponents of the charter concept contend that such involvement is a valuable resource that will ultimately lead to higher student achievement and other positive outcomes.
Another intermediate goal in most charter school laws is enhanced professional autonomy and opportunities for professional development for teachers. Charter schools are schools of choice for teachers as well as for parents and students. The charter school concept suggests that allowing teachers to choose schools with educational missions and approaches that closely match their own beliefs and interests will create school communities that can spend less time managing value conflicts among school stakeholders and more time implementing effective educational interventions. School choice can also promote a shared professional culture and higher levels of professional autonomy, which the literature suggests lead ultimately to improved levels of student achievement.
While it is true that many important regulations are not waived for charter schools, a few of the key freedoms charter schools are granted deal with teachers; for example, teachers are at-will employees, and most states do not require all charter school teachers to be certified. These provisions allow charter schools more flexibility in recruiting and structuring their teaching force to suit the specific needs of the school.
A third intermediate goal for charter schools is to develop innovations in curriculum and instruction. Put another way, proponents argue that charter schools can function as public education’s research and development sector. As such, the benefits of charter schools will extend to noncharter students as traditional public schools adopt and emulate these innovations.
Finally, some charter school advocates hope the schools will be laboratories for experiments in the use of privatized services. According to these advocates, schools will run more efficiently by contracting out part or all the services they provide. Charter schools, as it turns out, have provided a quick and easy route for privatization, because many states allow private schools to convert to public charter schools, and most states allow charter schools to contract all or part of their services to private education management organizations (EMOs). Some states have no charter schools operated by EMOs, but others—such as Michigan—have more than three-quarters of their schools operated by EMOs. In total, it is estimated that between 20 and 25 percent of all charter schools in the United States are operated by EMOs.
The research base to support many of these theoretical arguments is largely borrowed from market research and remains unproven within the education sector. Nevertheless, proponents continue to argue that increased school choice and privatization will bring a much-needed dose of entrepreneurial spirit and a competitive ethos to public education. While the research base is still somewhat limited, in recent years more and more sound evaluation and research has replaced the rhetorical or theoretical pieces that earlier dominated the literature on charter schools.
Accountability is the price that charter schools pay for their autonomy—specifically, accountability for results rather than accountability for inputs and processes. This, however, begs two additional questions. The first is: accountability for which outputs and outcomes? That is, which outcomes shall serve as the primary indicators of charter school quality? The second question is: accountability to whom? In other words, who will decide whether charter schools are making sufficient progress toward their goals?
The most commonly noted final outcomes for charter schools are student achievement and customer satisfaction, which are principles drawn from, respectively, the field of education and the field of business. There is some controversy over how policymakers and citizens should balance the values of student achievement and customer satisfaction. While many charter advocates argue that both are important, some libertarians and market conservatives view customer satisfaction as the paramount aim of public programs and agencies. Advocates of this position hold that a policy decision or outcome is good only if its customers think it is good and continue to “vote with their feet” for the service. Proponents of this position also maintain that it is the customers—parents and guardians—and not public officials who are best suited to know what is good for children. Interestingly, while most studies or evaluations of charter schools find that parents and students are generally satisfi ed with their charter school, the growing body of evidence indicates that, on the whole, charter schools are not performing better on standardized tests than are traditional public schools. Although there are a few successful states, the overall results are mixed at best.
The Future of Charter Schools
Charter schools are here to stay. Few will question that. However, two unanswered questions are of particular interest to the future of charter schools: What will be the likely rate of growth of charter schools? Will charter schools remain a distinct and separate school form, or will they be dragged back into the fold and come to resemble and operate like traditional public schools? Answers to these questions will depend greatly on how charter schools respond to a variety of potential threats that are both external and internal to the movement.
External threats to charter schools include state deficits and re-regulation. School systems are under increasing pressure owing to large budget deficits at local, state, and national levels. In times like these, governments need to focus on core education services and are less likely to start or expand reforms such as charter schools. Although some may argue that charter schools can be more efficient, to date there is insufficient evidence to support these claims. Another potential threat to charter schools is re-regulation. Requirements that charter schools administer the same standardized tests and have the same performance standards as traditional public schools mean that they cannot risk developing and using new curricular materials. New mandates regarding outcomes pressure charter schools to conform and restrict the autonomy they were intended to enjoy.
Charter schools also face a number of internal threats from within the movement. These include the following:
- Growing school and class sizes that are now approaching the sizes found in traditional public schools.
- Unchecked expansion of private EMOs. Claims that EMOs can make charter schools more effective have not been substantiated by research.
- While charter schools were originally intended to be autonomous and locally run, increasingly they are being started by EMOs rather than community groups and steered from distant corporate headquarters.
- Lack of innovation and limited diversity of school options. True school choice requires a diversity of options from which to choose, but charter schools are becoming increasingly similar to traditional public schools.
- Lack of support and standards for authorizers. Many authorizers have no funds allocated for oversight activities. Also, many authorizers are unprepared and sometimes unwilling to be sponsors of charter schools.
- Attrition of teachers and administrators is extremely high in charter schools. A number of studies suggest that annual attrition of teachers ranges from 15 to 30 percent. The loss of teachers leads to greater instability in the schools and represents a loss of investment. Some of this attrition may be functional, as charter school administrators exercise their autonomy in determining which teachers to hire and fire.
- Rapid growth of reforms. As with any sound reform process, it is important to test charter school reforms on a small scale in order to make adjustments before implementing them on a large scale. Some states have implemented and expanded their charter school reforms very rapidly, resulting in a backlash of resistance as shortcomings in oversight and other neglected aspects of the reform become apparent.
Evaluating Schools or Evaluated Schools?
Charter schools—by their very design—were intended to be evaluating schools. The charter school concept is based on providing greater autonomy for charter schools in exchange for greater accountability. This implies that charter schools would be actively involved in evaluating their outcomes and reporting these outcomes to state agencies, the authorizer or sponsor, parents, and the public at large. Another reason that suggests that charter schools would be evaluating schools is that they embody site-based management, so there are no bureaucracies to deal with. Also, the smaller size of these schools and self-selection by teachers and staff should lead to higher levels of interpersonal trust and better collaborative relationships and professional culture. Reasons such as these suggest that charter schools would be more likely to use and incorporate evaluation into regular operations at the school.
Nevertheless, charter schools face a number of obstacles in using evaluation or fulfilling their obligations for accountability. These include vague, incomplete, and often unmeasurable goals and objectives included in the charter contracts and the overwhelming start-up issues that charter schools face. Given the enormous start-up challenges related to facilities, staffing, and recruiting students, it is no surprise that charter schools place evaluation low on the list of priorities. Further obstacles include the often new and inexperienced school leaders and the high turnover of teachers and administrators. Another critical obstacle is the weak signals that the schools might receive from oversight agencies.
While there are tremendous differences between and within states, it generally can be said that evaluation conducted by individual charter schools is weak and limited in scope. Because of demands for accountability and because they are not sufficiently proactive in demonstrating success, charter schools have largely become evaluated rather than evaluating schools.
Autonomy for Accountability
As noted earlier, the academic performance of charter schools is mixed at best. Defenders of charter schools rationalize or justify this less-than-expected performance by pointing out that many traditional public schools are also failing, and thus it is unfair to hold charter schools to high standards when other schools are not.
Nationally, between 6 and 7 percent of all charter schools have closed, which is surprising given their relatively weak performance. One reason for the lack of closures is insufficient evidence about school performance from which authorizers can make renewal, nonrenewal, or revocation decisions. Political and ideological factors can also explain—in part—why many authorizers are closing so few poor-performing charters. Closing poor-performing charter schools will strengthen charter school reforms in two ways. First, removing these schools from the aggregate results for charter schools will increase their overall results. Second, closing such schools sends a strong message to other charter schools that the autonomy-for-accountability agreement is real.
While many traditional schools do perform far below established standards, this should not be used as a justification for excusing charter schools from the standards agreed upon in their contracts. The idea behind charter schools was not to replicate the existing system, which many argue suffers from a lack of accountability. Rather, they were envisioned as a means of pressuring traditional public schools to improve both by example and through competition. If charter schools are to serve as a lever for change, they must be better than traditional public schools, and they must be held accountable for their performance.
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