Charter Schools: Reinventing Public Education
The destiny of a nation lies in the education of its youth. Both Jesus and Hitler understood that society is shaped by its children, for better or worse. In this country, the commitment of public education to social indoctrination of our youth instead of education has helped determine the downward trajectory of the American Republic.
The idea for charter schools began as a proposal by a professor named Ray Budde to a group of his academic colleagues. Restructure education by establishing independent programs within public schools that are developed by teachers. The 1974 paper drew little interest until the publication of A Nation at Risk. The government report described the failure of public education to teach and the decline in academic competence of students as a national security threat.
Al Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, endorsed the idea at a national meeting in 1988, and expanded it to the creation of independent schools within the public school building. Three years later, Minnesota passed the first state charter school law. California followed suit. Today, 42 states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws.
There was no federal support for charter schools until President Clinton amended the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1992. It provided for the development of charter schools with federal grants to fund them. President Bush signaled his support in the No Child Left Behind legislation. Nevertheless, opposition by local school districts and unions has severely restricted the establishment of countless charter schools nationwide. Their antipathy represents the biggest obstacle to continuing expansion of the charter network.
The creation of autonomous schools, independent of rules, regulations and union dogma remains an inspired idea, as freedom always is. Initially housed within the walls of a traditional public school, charter schools now occupy their own space, often in a trailer, vacant building or rented store front. In just over two decades, the handful of tiny schools started by teachers, parents and concerned citizens has grown into a network of 6,400 schools nationwide that serves 2.57 million students and has waiting lists of more than one million additional applicants.
Early critics feared charter schools would siphon off the highest performing students and much-needed funds. In reality, a majority of students are the poor, low performing minority students whose parents view charter schools as a chance for success. As with Catholic schools, this group has benefited the most from the charter programs.
After Hurricane Katrina leveled New Orleans, its public schools were turned over to the Recovery School District. Seven thousand teachers and administrative employees were fired and replaced by a new cadre of teachers and staff. The citywide system of low-performing public schools was replaced by a network of charter schools, many of them operated by private Charter Management Organizations. This fall 100% of the city’s school age children attended charter schools. The sixty-five percent below-state-academic-test-scores rate has declined to seven per cent. Nineteen of the city’s schools now rank among the top twenty schools in the state.
Last year, seven charter schools were recognized for Title I Academic Achievement. Sixty-five charters were California Distinguished Schools. Eight of the nation’s top twenty and 29 of the nation’s top one hundred charter schools are in California. 33 of the country’s top 100 schools in the nation are charter schools, with Oxford Academy in Cypress ranked as the tenth best school in the United States.
New York City’s charter schools rank among the best. Graduates of the Young Women’s Leadership Academy network of charter academies have a 300% greater chance of finishing college than their public school counterparts. More than 5500 poor minority girls who graduated from the schools have enrolled in college compared to the nationwide rate of only 8%.
Students enrolled in TYWLA East Harlem have consistently received the highest scores on the New York State Regents Exam. Mayor Bill De Blasio created a firestorm of protest when he attempted to trim the system of 154 schools his predecessor Michael Bloomberg had successfully built during his tenure.
Three decades ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education warned that “a rising tide of mediocrity” in America’s schools was eroding our economy and society. Charter schools have proven to be a means to stem that tide. It is worth a closer look at the phenomenon to understand the reasons for its success and the threat charter schools represent to political bureaucrats and teachers’ unions.
The process of separation-individuation represents a milestone in human psychological development. From a dynamic perspective, charter schools are the organizational equivalent. Separated from their parent organizations, the schools become autonomous structures. Liberated from the collective, each school is free to develop its own individual identity unlike the traditional system of identical clones.
Each charter school is a unique system in which the teachers and principals are free to design the curriculum and daily lesson plans. It is the freedom the teachers are given to be innovative and creative that accounts for much of their extraordinary success. The process is very similar to that psychosocial development of children in a family. Those who leave home tend to become successful adults.
Opponents of charter schools maintain that they siphon off the top-performing students and essential financial resources, that the schools are racially and ethnically imbalanced. The data from countless studies contradict those claims.
The majority of students who enroll in charter schools are among the lowest performers in their public schools and more than two-thirds qualify for free or low-cost lunches. The schools typically receive only 60% of the funds allotted per pupil and sometimes have to make up the difference in costs out of pocket. Virtual schools offer online classes that have lowered the costs without compromising their effectiveness. Student demographics are similar to those of traditional public schools.
The 2014 Center for Research on Education Outcomes study on charter schools was analyzed by the RAND Corporation, a think tank whose employees donate almost exclusively to Democrat candidates. It found that students in New York who remain in charter schools through 8th grade score 30 points higher in math than their traditional public school counterparts, a finding that was repeated across the country but buried in the report.
The CREDO study on LAUSD found that 48% of the students in Los Angeles charter schools scored significantly higher in reading than their counterparts in traditional public schools and 44% higher in math. The charter students gained, on average, one full year of progress as a result of the substantial number of days added to their school year and more rigorous curriculum. The results were similar to those of Catholic schools. Liberal politics similarly biases a number of the unfavorable published studies of charter schools and conceals their highly successful record nationwide. It also accounts for much of the public opposition to them.
The application process itself is deliberately made arduous. Each school must submit a detailed proposal which includes five-year financial projection, cost analysis, governance code, disciplinary guidelines and grievance protocols among a list of other requirements. The application for Coney Island Prep’s charter totaled 1800 pages!
The proposal must be approved by an authorizing agency. In California, the local school district grants the charter. Its denial can be appealed to the state. Opposition from the teachers’ unions, anti-charter activist groups and school superintendents has stifled many fine prospective charter schools. Orange County is ranked among the most hostile to charter schools.
Of the 1043 charter schools in California, 130 are in San Diego County, 60 in Santa Clara County but only 27 in Orange County, known to be hostile to them. Although federal legislation supports their creation and ballot Proposition 39 specifically endorsed an equal share of resources budgeted for education, union opposition has successfully thwarted both.
7% of charter school teachers are unionized. The loss in annual dues revenue is a threat to union power and the reason for the strong opposition. The California Teachers Union spent $26 Million to defeat Proposition 38, the school voucher initiative. It also reassigned reformist principal Frank Wells to an empty office where he sat with nothing to do and collected $600 per day. He was punished refusing to abandon the successful changes he implemented at Locke High School in Watts that turned the failing school into a success.
States enact their own charter laws, designate the authorizing agency that grants the charters and establishes the standards for their governance and accountability. In California, local school boards authorize charters. In the event the application is denied, the decision can be appealed to the State Board of Education.
Charters are generally granted for five years. Accountability is assessed regularly by Adequate Yearly Progress and other measures, not unlike the mandatory assessments of hospital performance by the Joint Commission on Hospital Accreditation. Schools are examined for financial deficiencies, academic performance, mismanagement and governance.
Not all charter schools are successful. The closure rate is between 15-17%, most often because of inadequate finances or mismanagement, rarely for substandard academic performance. For-profit management companies such as KIPP, Alliance, Aspire and Summit operate among the most financially sound, highest performing schools in California and nationwide.
Wherever charter schools have been established, whether in Canada, Chile, England, New Zealand Sweden or the United States, they have a proven track record of success. This record represents a threat to the system of public schools, the security of the entrenched bureaucracy and the power of the teachers unions with their multi-billion dollar annual war chest.
The David versus Goliath struggle is a battle well worth the effort. The continuing pitiful performance of American students in international academic assessments bears witness to the failure of an incompetent and corrupt education system that needs to be overhauled, if not completely scrapped. The fact that neighborhood public schools have responded to charter schools with improvements in curriculum and test scores is hopeful. The same is true for the sponsorship of several charter schools in Houston by the local teachers union.
These developments suggest that charter schools directly and indirectly improve student outcomes. In a nation that has plummeted from the top to the bottom in academic performance, charter schools offer a valuable tool to reverse the trend and the seemingly inevitable failure of the precious legacy that our Founding Fathers left us.
About the Author: R. Claire Friend, MD, is the Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, UC Irvine Medical Center, and the editor of the UC Irvine Quarterly Journal of Psychiatry. She is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.