Yet another study shows the negative effect that charter schools have on public schools and the communities they serve

Here’s another example of ideology being such a strong factor in perception that it overcomes facts. Two academic researchers Helen Ladd of Duke University and Josh Singleton of the University of Rochester conduct a fine study that shows another way that charter schools are bad for students and society, but their conclusion is not to end charter schools but to make it easier to open more!

What the esteemed professors Ladd and Singleton find is that shifting monies from public schools to charter schools leave the public schools with less money to spend per pupil, something like $500 per kid in the areas they studied, which is a lot of money when you start thinking about supplies, books and enrichment tools. Ladd and Singleton did their analysis on the Durham, North Carolina school system and follows similar research that found that Albany had $900 less to spend per public school pupil and Buffalo had $700 less to spend because of charter schools. Ladd and Singleton figure that the impact is greater on the North Carolina children because that state spends less per child on public education. Reversing the math, Ladd and Singleton compute that each charter school enrollee in Durham means there is $3,500 less to spend on the students who remain in public schools.

The biggest reason Ladd and Singleton find for the charter school drain on public schools is that fixed costs such as for buildings, vehicles, administrators and compliance remain the same but there is a smaller base of students to pay for these expenses.

Before considering how Ladd and Singleton propose to address the issue of charter schools draining public schools, let’s review what we already know about charters. Time and again, studies have shown that more than 70% of all charter schools perform either at a worse level or at the same level as the public school with which they compete. Thus in most cases, charter schools are not working and were not worth the effort and disruption.

What’s more, whenever researchers and journalists dig into any of the 29% of charter schools whose students seem to do better than the kids in the competing public school, they find a telling pattern: In every reported case I’ve seen, the charter school always starts with more kids in their early grades but as the years progress, gradually whittle down the class size. In other words, many of the limited number of successful charter schools weed out underperforming students so that their results look better.

For example, a charter run by the for-profit BASIS Charter Schools that U.S. News & World Report once named as one of the top 10 schools in the country, started with 125 students in sixth grade but had a mere 21 in the graduating class. The administration presumably weeded out low performers, who then returned to their traditional public school.

We must assume that Ladd and Singleton have reviewed this research. In fact, if they were doing work on charter schools, we would be highly surprised and suspicious if they were not aware of the growing body of research demonstrating that charter schools have failed to deliver on their promise to improve school performance.

So let me pose a common sense question. If you knew charter schools almost always do not do better than public schools and many of the small number of cases in which they do improve student performance the schools cooked the books, and then you found out that charter schools also hurt the kids who remain in the public school system, what would you recommend?

Remember, the results: Doesn’t work for the kids it teaches and makes things worse for other kids.

Let’s simplify some more: Doesn’t help users, hurts others.

Admit it. When learning that something usually doesn’t help the people it’s supposed to and hurts everyone else, wouldn’t you say, get rid of it!? Wouldn’t you take that prescription drug off the market, or not approve it in the first place?

But that’s not what Ladd and Singleton want. They don’t call for an end to charter schools. They don’t propose a process for reintegrating charter school students into the public school population. They don’t advocate for a public affairs program to explain to school boards, politicians and civic leaders why charter schools suck. They don’t even propose that charter schools pony up more money to public schools (which in this case means taking less funds or returning some of the money) to make up the difference.

No, what Ladd and Singleton advocate is that state governments provide local public schools with more funding to make up the difference when charter schools drain their student base.

We can only speculate idly about why two apparently well-respected academics would not only fail to recommend reining in charter schools, but actually propose a way to make it easier to form more. We have seen this kind of thinking before, usually from right-wing ideologues who place the free market system above all else, but also from Democrats who try to accommodate the free market such as the Clintons and Obama. Take the large number of policy wonks who continue to believe that making a market for pollution will lower pollution because the market will encourage more innovation than simply regulating emissions, despite the fact that all pollution markets have failed miserably. As we know, many of the most radical free-marketers are in the pay of the billionaire funders of the charter school movement, whose real goal all along has been to destroy teachers’ unions.

We have no way of knowing the real reason why Ladd and Singleton don’t condemn charter schools. All we can do is scratch our heads and wonder.


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