Blog: The Educated Reporter

The Charter School Sector’s Growing Pains

First Lady Michelle Obama talks with students during a college application rally at the Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. Charter schools have expanded significantly in recent years, including in the nation's capital. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Roughly 25 years after the first charter school opened in Minnesota, the debate over these publicly funded but independently operated campuses remains polarized.

Juan Cofield, the president of the NAACP’s New England Area Conference opposes a looming public referendum in Massachusetts to lift that state’s cap on the number of charter schools.

“Public dollars are being siphoned from traditional public schools to feed charter schools, and that has a very damning effect on traditional public schools,” Cofield said during a May panel at the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar in Boston. “What we are creating is a separate and unequal school system.”

But Shannah Varón, the executive director of Boston Collegiate Charter School, which serves middle and high school students, called for expanding the charter sector. She noted that 34,000 students are on waiting lists to attend such public schools in Massachusetts.

“Charter schools, particularly in the Massachusetts context, are working tremendously to deliver academic achievement to students,” said Varón during the EWA session, which explored recent developments concerning the growth of the charter sector.

Opening and Closing Schools

The debate over whether to lift the charter cap has sparked intense political debate in the Bay State. In fact, the day after the panel, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts emphasized his support for more charter schools during a keynote address at the EWA seminar.

The number of charters nationwide has increased to about 6,800 schools serving some 3 million students, according to Todd Ziebarth, a senior vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. However, growth has been tempered as more and more charter schools have closed, in some cases because authorizers have become more aggressive in shutting down poor performers.

On average, about 400 charter schools have opened annually in recent years, with about 150 to 200 closing a year, Ziebarth said.

In the 1990s, he said, charter advocates took a looser approach. The philosophy then, Ziebarth said, was: “Let a thousand flowers bloom, and the market will sort things out in terms of accountability.”

Today, states are taking a more measured method, placing more emphasis on authorizers holding charter schools accountable, according to Ziebarth.

Reflecting continued growth in the movement, four states have adopted laws allowing charter schools since 2011: Alabama, Maine, Mississippi and Washington. (The Washington State law was ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court last fall, but recently approved legislation changing the funding mechanism allows charter schools to operate.) Seven states lack charter laws, but Ziebarth said he expects Kentucky and West Virginia to join the majority next.

While charter schools nationwide make up only about 5 percent of the public school population, some cities buck the trend. In New Orleans, which overhauled its school system after Hurricane Katrina, about 90 percent of public school students attend charters, according to Ziebarth.

Charter enrollment represents about half of students in Detroit and Flint, Michigan, and about 40 percent in Kansas City, Missouri, and Gary, Indiana. Ziebarth’s organization publishes an annual report on communities around the country with an especially large share of charter schools.

Growth battles are looming in numerous cities: Philadelphia, Newark, Camden, Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, New York, Memphis and Nashville, according to Ziebarth.

Still, he added, “We face a pretty entrenched, at times hostile, opposition, to charters. It’s not just teacher unions. It’s school boards. It’s superintendents. It’s one issue that unites those three groups. But at the same time we too often inflict … wounds on ourselves.”

Federal Dollars for Charters

Looking toward the next 25 years of charter schools, David Welker of the National Education Association said the teachers’ union agrees with many of the challenges foreseen by Andrew Rotherham, the co-founder of the nonprofit group Bellwether Education Partners and a former education aide to President Bill Clinton. Those issues, Welker said, include an insufficient pipeline of charter school founders, ineffective board governance and too many poor-performing charters.

One of the biggest catalysts fueling growth, Welker said, is the federal government’s Charter School Program, which has poured $1.5 billion to fund start-up costs and expansion of charter schools since 2006. Welker urged reporters to explore the federal dollars going into their own communities by reviewing data now available from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation & Improvement website.

Another storyline that emerged during the panel was the disparity – or the similarity – in the students being served by charter schools versus traditional public schools. Reporters may want to compare the different student populations such as the percentage of English-language learners and students with disabilities in both types of schools in their city or state. Do charter schools and traditional public schools suspend students at different rates?

The NAACP’s Cofield suggested that traditional public schools serve more struggling students who need more resources, while charter schools may end up kicking out these children.

But Varón, of Boston Collegiate Charter School (and also the chair of the Boston Charter Alliance), countered that charter schools do serve needy students, giving an example of a youngster at her school who struggled to communicate and to use the restroom. However, she said, some families may find the enrollment process difficult, and she is working with Boston Public Schools to try to streamline it.

“We are not interested in boxing out children from our schools,” she said.

Perhaps the one agreement regarding charter schools is interest in the movement. So many reporters wanted to attend the EWA session that organizers had to move the panel discussion to a larger room.