Charter schools continue to underperform public schools

The New York Times headline this morning should have read “Charter Schools Continue to Underperform Public Schools.” Instead the Times headline writer went with “Charter Schools Are Improving, a Study Says.”

Both are true, but the first is truer because it isn’t taken out of context. Someone could infer from “Charter Schools are Improving…”  that they were better than public schools, particularly since many falsely believe that already, either because they have swallowed the “free market is always better” Kool-Aid  or because they have read so much derogatory right-wing nonsense about public schools and teachers’ union.

Here are the facts: “The National Charter School Study” by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) is the gold standard for comparing the performance of charter schools and public schools.  CREDO released its original’s study four years ago and released an updated version yesterday. In both studies, neighborhood public schools win over charter schools hands down.

But charter schools are improving—from very bad to mediocre: In 2009, 37% of charter schools performed worse than the neighborhood public school and only 17% did better. Now 31% do worse than the neighborhood school while 29% do better.  As the Times underscores, charter schools range in quality from state to state: doing better in New York, Michigan and Louisiana, and worse in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Texas, among other states.

What’s so fascinating to me is that the New York Times would have a misleading headline to a story that was on the whole fairly balanced. The lead sentence, for example, stated that charter schools did poorly in the 2009 study and that the 2013 update merely showed that “in a few states, charter schools are improving in some areas.” When the headline clashes with the story content, it is often a sign that the editorial opinion of ownership or the editorial board favors the view expressed in the headline.

The continued mediocre performance of charter schools is not surprising. The business model for the charter school dooms it to failure. While parents may people a board of directors of a charter school, the school typically hires a for-profit company (or a for-profit parading as a non–profit) to run the school. Charter schools pay teachers less money than public schools do, primarily because charters are typically non-unionized. While some of the money saved by paying teachers less may or may not finance more equipment, new books or more teachers, we know that a good part of it is going to higher executive salaries and company profit. Now teachers are like attorneys, accountants, engineers and other professionals. While the highest paid may not be the very best, in general the best get paid the most. So with the best teachers taking the public school jobs, charter schools are left with the least experienced and the less competent.

Let’s face it: The sole purpose of the charter school movement is to destroy teachers’ unions and thereby lower the wage rate of all Americans. It’s part of the 30+ year campaign to transfer wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy.  This political agenda, shared by virtually all Republicans and many Democrats,  has four main tenets:

  1. Lower taxes on the wealthy.
  2. Reduce government spending on social welfare programs for the poor and near-poor.
  3. Privatize traditional government services, leading to profit-making opportunities for the wealthy
  4. Destroy unions.

There are many things wrong with the American education system. But charter schools don’t really solve any of them. The charter school movement is a failed experiment.

Let’s pull the plug. Let’s ask our elected representatives to outlaw and dismantle charter schools and instead increase aid to education that will put more teachers in the classroom, reduce the size of classes, give students everywhere access to the Internet and computers, extend gifted programs to lower grades and level the playing field between schools in rich and poor neighborhoods.

One comment on “Charter schools continue to underperform public schools
  1. Peter Minde says:

    In my opinion, it’s difficult (for the Times) to write a short cohesive article on charter schools when the regulations and funding formulas vary so much from state to state. I don’t know how charters are funded in other states. Here in NJ, they’re funded by the child’s sending district. While NJ charter schools may have freedom to design curriculum outside the box, they held to the same standards as mainstream public schools. Finally, not all charters are managed by private corporations. My child’s school, Unity Charter School, was started in 1998 by a grass roots group of committed parents, and today the board of trustees – parent volunteers – collaborates with the administration to run the school. No one like KIPP or Advance is involved.

    In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m a member of the Unity Charter School Board of Trustees. Thank you for sharing the link to the New York Times article and for sharing your thoughts on the article.

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