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    This month's TeacherTalk is written by Matt Jacobs, President of the Sewanhaka Federation of Teachers and a member of the boards of directors of the NEA and NEA/New York.

Charter Schools Promise More Than They Deliver

New York recently became the thirty-fourth state to enact some form of charter school legislation. Before rejoicing, New Yorkers should pause to consider how charter schools have performed in states where they have been operating for some time. One might have expected the governor and legislators to thoroughly investigate the performance of existing charter schools beforehand, but educational quality was probably the last thing on their minds as they hurried the bill through a closed door session of the legislature. The only interests that were actually served by the passage of the charter bill were Governor Pataki’s need to pay off political debts to conservative supporters who advocate educational privatization and the legislature’s desire for a hefty pay raise.

Until now, the charter debate has been framed entirely in theoretical terms for lack of any empirical data measuring the performance of charter schools. A recently released study by a team of educational researchers at UCLA, Beyond the Rhetoric of Charter School Reform: A Study of Ten California School Districts, has recast that public discussion by providing the first impartial and substantive analysis of how well charter schools actually perform.

The study examines seventeen charter schools in ten California school districts. California was the second state to pass charter schools legislation. It currently has over 150 charter schools providing education for over 50,000 students – nearly a third of the total number of students currently attending charter schools in the United States. The districts selected for the study varied in size, racial and socio-economic makeup, geographic location, demographic characteristics and types of charter schools in order to obtain a widest possible view of the charter school movement as a whole.

The major provisions of the 1992 California charter schools law strongly resemble New York’s recent legislation. Both laws reduce the amount of state aid given to public school districts by allowing tax dollars to follow charter school enrollees, free charter schools from all state regulations save those pertaining to health and safety, civil rights and participation in state assessment programs, allow the limited hiring of uncertified personnel, make union membership optional, permit "non-discriminatory" student admissions criteria, forbid the establishment of sectarian charter schools, and cap the total number of new charter schools that may be created. Thus, New York should be able to learn much from the California charter school experience.

The UCLA researchers used the claims made by charter school proponents as the standard against which to measure charter school performance. Charter schools, say their supporters, will be more accountable for student outcomes, have greater autonomy and flexibility to better serve students, do more with fewer resources by being more efficient, offer more choices to families, create competition that will force change in the entire public education system, and provide models of innovation from which other public schools can learn. Perhaps not surprisingly, the study found that charter schools fail to deliver on many of their promises.

The study found little evidence that charter schools provide more accountability for student achievement than public schools. If anything, fiscal accountability seems to be far more stressed by local oversight boards than academic results. Furthermore, meaningful comparisons with public schools are difficult because the charter schools are usually able to recruit from a self-selected pool of students, often better behaved or with more involved parents than other students in their community.

Charter schools often have far less autonomy than one might expect, primarily because charter school operators frequently prefer to rely rather heavily on services provided by local districts. Even charters that initially seek substantial autonomy often revert to dependence on local districts when problems arise. The one area in which great autonomy and flexibility does seem to be consistently achieved is in the hiring of teachers. Most hire certified teachers primarily, and while many of those teachers feel more empowered and free in the charter school setting, the substantial demands placed on educators’ time and energy would be difficult to sustain over time. Furthermore, instructional techniques in charter schools do not seem to differ significantly from public school methods. Teachers in conversion charter schools tend to retain their union ties while teachers in new charter schools have generally not joined unions.

The claim of greater efficiency in resource utilization is not sustained by the study. Charter schools tended to fall into two categories: those that are able to equal public school per-pupil spending levels by obtaining financial support from private sources; and those that function with less funding by simply doing without many of the essential facilities available in public schools. In short, charter schools are not doing "more with less."

The researchers found the claim of greater choice for students and parents to be the least sustainable of all. Through recruitment and requirement mechanisms and more stringent discipline and expulsion policies, charter schools have more power than public schools to shape their student bodies. Where parents do have greater choice, it is generally the more affluent, while poorer parents who traditionally have the fewest choices derive little benefit from charter schools. The researchers noted that little attention is being paid to equity issues. Disparities between the racial composition of charter schools and the districts in which they are situated have not been addressed, not to mention the fact that charter schools in wealthy communities are able to provide much more in the way of educational advantages to their students than those in poorer communities.

As for the promised benefits of competition and innovation, the study again found that little was delivered. For overcrowded public schools, fear of a loss of student enrollment is not an issue and market-driven innovations to retain students were not noted by the researchers. Furthermore, there was little evidence of any collaborative or interactive exchange of innovative methods between charter and public schools. A general lack of communication between charter and public schools prevents the anticipated sharing of innovative ideas.

Based on these findings, it is unlikely that charter schools will do much to raise the level of educational quality in New York. There is, instead, every indication that charter schools will be the camel’s nose under the tent for privatization and vouchers. Sectarian groups seeking to promote religious education at public expense have been among the very first to rush forth with plans for charter schools. Sadly, Albany’s cynical political games have dealt a serious blow to the health of public education in New York.

Click here to read the full UCLA report on charter schools.


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