Out front, I have to remind readers that I’m a mathematician, and for all those who remember back in the day the Myers-Briggs personality analysis, an INTJ. What that means is that I don’t tend to be swayed by emotional arguments. I much more look at the patterns, facts, and trends when analyzing anything. So when I look at charter schools, I come away with a very mixed view of their future.
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The emotional side loves the possibility of doing much better than the traditional public schools — by avoiding all the forced mandates that prevent teaching today, really focusing on getting children once again to understand things that just remember them for a week to get through a weekly quiz and pass standardized tests, stopping the bullying and intimidation of teachers by school administrators, and stopping the useless and micromanaging mandates by career bureaucrats at DoE that tie our hands as teachers.
After all – isn’t all that what has been promised by the career bureaucrats in DoE?
If a charter school could deliver on those promises, it would be a great thing for our children. But then the reality then sets in that very little substantive change has occurred in charter schools compared to traditional public schools. If you ignore the DoE hype, and look at the actual facts and details, (a very good site for that is here) you get a state-by-state look at the real picture.
- Despite all the hype and promises, charter schools are not very different at all from standard urban high school – none of the destructive federal mandates have been waived to allow much-needed substantive differences. States can only waive state and local mandates – with several states making little or no change.
- The nationwide failure is clear.
- In 2013, while 642 new charter schools were opened, 206 others failed and were closed.
- A major Stanford University research project found that only 17% of charter schools have outperformed traditional schools, and 37% have underperformed. 46% are no different from traditional public schools.
- Half of the charter schools in Indiana have failed.
- Thousands of the 6000-plus charter schools now in place are in the process of failing.
- Many states have a moratorium on new charter school start-ups, because of their dismal results.
- Almost all the initial growth in charter school enrollment, and almost all the early successes, can be directly attributed to the transfer of highly motivated private school children to charter schools
The formula for the early charter school success – fill the classes with ex-private school students
The most positive results in charter schools so far have little to do with the few waivers and changes made – the real plus has been attracting students from private schools with much higher pre-existing expectations and motivation. Many of these students had already covered the “grade X” curricula 2-3 years earlier in their private schools. These parents looked at the vouchers and hope of private school performance at a free or subsidized cost, and saw a move to charters as a no-brainer. Already, that trend is reversing because of the failure of charter schools to deliver on the hype.
Based upon US Census and other reports, it is a drop in private school enrollment that accounts for the growth in charter school enrollment. According to census and NCES data, private school high school enrollment dropped by from 12% to 10% of the high school population over the past 15 years, and is projected to drop an additional 1% over the next 8 years. That decline is an almost one-to-one match with the growth in charter school enrollment.
Moving highly motivated private school students to charter schools had a dramatic impact on initial success — but those gains proved to be only temporary. High motivations and expectations soon are countered by the reality of mandates, standardized testing, and teachers forced to dumb down teaching. Performance that looked so good based upon students being tested in a charter school for content they learned years earlier in the private school, soon eroded. It is hard for non-teachers to realize how powerful student expectations and motivations were in determining the initial bubble of success in many charter schools. Expectations and parent reinforcement are powerful education factors!
The problem is, as with the 206 charter closings last year alone, what will happen to this migration from private schools as parents learn that the quality of charter school education is far from what they expected? Parents seeking the best education for their child will not accept an education Stanford University found to be worse than traditional schools 37% of the time, and better just 17%. Take away the highest motivated students, and the ones who have already covered the course material years earlier, and the decline in charter school results becomes precipitous!
All the destructive federal mandates, and many of the worst state mandates, remain in place,
The heart of the failure is that states cannot waive all the destructive unintended consequences of federal mandates – No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, SPED, inclusion, standardized testing, etc. They can only choose to waive state mandates. And all this mandated bureaucracy continues to cheat a generation of children out of a good education. In general, most states allow charter schools to have more school hours and more/longer courses and electives. Most have more freedom in hiring and firing teachers. Most tend to attract higher motivation students and more supportive parents. Many states (but not all) make waivers to some of their own state mandates – either by law or by allowing charter schools to request specific waivers. However, the main destructive unintended consequences and mandates from federal DOE career bureaucrats continue to mean all the underlying reasons for the decline in urban high school education still remain under the surface of every charter school.
And those same public school flaws are already starting to surface in report after report about charter schools. Here is an overview of what is now widespread:
— Attract high motivation students (almost all, so far, out of private schools according to the US Census, NCES, and other reports)
— Parents hope for “private school education” without the cost of a private school
— More freedom for length of day, and length and number of classes
— More electives
— Set higher expectations for students upon entry
— More freedom in hire/fire teachers
— Not exempt from the debilitating unintended consequences of No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top failings
— Still subject to all federal mandates on SPED, inclusion, standard testing, etc.
— Some states waive very little, or require applications for specific waivers
— Almost all growth from private schools so far
— We are making urban non-charter schools high schools worse by drawing away the highest motivated parents and students
— Initially seen as cheaper alternative to private, and now reversing (as in 206 failed charters last year) as parents become disillusioned with results
Very few substantive waivers have been made. Please note that the waivers only apply, when granted, to state mandates. All federal mandates (NCLB, RTTT, standardized testing, SPED, inclusion, etc.) remain fully in effect. Here are summaries of the comparison of charter versus non-charter schools in several states:
Massachusetts (Almost no state mandate difference): Massachusetts law provides that charter schools must operate in accordance with the provisions of law regulating other public schools, although the following provisions of state law do not apply to commonwealth charter schools: “Section 41. Tenure of teachers and superintendents; persons entitled to professional teacher status; dismissal; review” and “Section 42: Dismissal or demotion of teachers or other employees of school or school district; arbitration.”
Arizona (Very strong state mandate differences): Except as provided in Arizona’s charter school law for things like health, safety, and academic accountability and as provided in a charter school’s charter contract, Arizona law provides that a charter school is automatically exempt from statutes and rules relating to traditional public schools, governing boards, and school districts.
California (Very strong state mandate differences): California law provides that charter schools are automatically exempt from most laws governing school districts.
Florida (Middle of the road state mandate differences): Florida law provides that charter schools are exempt from all state statutes and education code provisions except those explicitly applying to charters, assessment, grading, special education, civil rights, health, safety and welfare, public meetings and records, public inspection, and criminal and civil penalties. It also provides that local school board policies don’t apply to charter schools.
Indiana (Many exceptions to waiver of state mandates ): Indiana law provides that any state statute applicable to a governing body or school corporation…unless specifically incorporated in the charter do not apply to a charter school, except for the following statutes, rules, and guidelines: required audits by the state board of accounts; unified accounting system; special education; criminal history; laws requiring regulation by state agencies; voiding of teacher contract when two contracts are signed; nondiscrimination for teacher marital status; teacher freedom of association; school counselor immunity; compulsory school attendance; limitations on employment of children; student due process and judicial review; firearms and deadly weapons; health and safety measures; reporting of student violations of law; patriotic commemorative observances; assessment programs, including remediation under the assessment programs; parental access to education records; and accountability for school performance and improvement.
Louisiana (Very strong state mandate differences): Notwithstanding any state law, rule, or regulation to the contrary and except as provided in the state’s charter school law and as may be otherwise specifically provided for in an approved charter, Louisiana law provides that charter schools are exempt from all rules and regulations of the state board and those of any local school board that are applicable to public schools and to public school officers and employees.
Michigan (Almost no state mandate differences): Michigan law requires that charter schools must abide by all laws required of traditional public schools, except being part of the collective bargaining agreement of the district in which they reside. Like traditional districts, Michigan law allows charter schools to seek waivers from the state department of education.
Union “approval” of the terms seen as approval of the concept
Meanwhile, there is little or no help from the legislators, career DoE bureaucrats, or even the state and national teacher unions to look at the crippling mandate issues. The state and national teacher unions focus almost entirely on PAC efforts to support candidates, rather than directly on student and education fixes, because charter schools are an opportunity to get more money or jobs for education regardless of what it does for education. These unions “approve” the new charter schools, not because teachers expect any real success, but because they have the duty to negotiate the terms of the policies DoE sets in place.
Yet what the local teacher unions want, and beg for with little response from their own state and federal affiliates, is help fixing the real problems with education. And, as I detailed in Lifting the Curtain: The disgrace we call urban high school education, nine of the eleven fixes teachers beg for, other than building upgrades, can be accomplished with less funding, not more!
The bottom line
So when I look at the charter schools, I once again look at all the conflict between the destructive consequences of well-meaning legislation, versus the hope and hype promised when starting charter schools. I see the positives ever more countered and overcome by all the “cons” still lurking under the surface. And, sadly, the large rise this year in news reports about further problems, moratoriums, scandals, and closings with charter schools suggests that the failings are starting to win, big time.
Why should we be surprised? It’s just a repackaged breakfast cereal, “new and improved,” that is nothing more than the same oats and bran in a different color box.
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