Charter schools hold promise, but they’re no magic bullet


Charter schools are on the cusp of national stardom. After gaining increased acceptance in the last decade, they now are central to school reform under the Obama administration, which wants states to remove any limits on their growth.

Charter schools are publicly funded but operate free of many state and school district regulations. The idea behind their creation was to empower schools to make their own hiring and curriculum decisions in exchange for guarantees in their contracts -- or charters -- to deliver high scholastic achievement in a certain amount of time or risk closure. The schools were intended to model innovations that might be replicated on a grand scale and to eliminate cumbersome labor contracts that work against better education. They would give disadvantaged students their first real alternative to violence-prone, low-performing public schools and create pressure for those schools to bring about quicker, more dramatic reform lest they lose enrollment.

After a decade of rapid growth, charters have begun delivering on some of these promises. They were among the first smaller, more personal schools; “smaller” has become a rallying cry among urban school districts. Families in low-income areas flocked to the new schools, where expectations were higher and children felt safer. Some have delivered impressive test scores.

All of these accomplishments have been particularly noticeable in Los Angeles Unified, where reform in the traditional public school system has come slower than in other large urban districts, and where charters have been a lifeline for students trapped in schools with high dropout rates and miserable achievement levels. That’s why this page has supported the growth of the charter movement in L.A., as well as a new district initiative that will open perhaps 250 schools to outside management, including charter operators. Drastic change is needed, and the record of several local charter organizations, such as Green Dot Public Schools and the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, at least offers hope for better management.

Less clear, though, is whether charter schools offer real, long-term solutions to fixing public education in America, or whether the Obama administration should be relying on them so heavily as a means of turning around the nation’s record of academic mediocrity. Studies of charter schools have been mixed; some researchers give higher marks to charters, others to public schools. One of the most recent and most comprehensive longitudinal studies, released by Stanford University in June, found that charter schools were uneven. More than a third perform worse than nearby public schools, and about half do about as well as public schools, the study found. Only 17% provide students with a “superior educational opportunity.”

Built-in advantages

Clearly, it’s difficult to generalize about charter schools. By their very nature as independently run schools, they vary widely in their programs and goals. But they’re all supposed to do a good job of educating students -- in most cases, a better job than surrounding schools.

That’s especially true considering that, at least theoretically, charter schools have a built-in advantage. In California, most charter schools fill their seats through lotteries, to give all students an equal chance and to prevent the schools from enrolling only the most promising students. It’s a fair system, but it skews enrollment because the lotteries attract motivated, involved families. In addition, charter schools can require extra responsibilities for students and parents, such as volunteering time on campus, and can close enrollment when they are full. They also have more authority to expel students who do not meet their standards for behavior. Families that are unable or unwilling to invest that much in their children’s education will end up at public schools, which have to accept all students within their boundaries.

Middle schools operated by the respected Knowledge Is Power Program, for example, run a highly regimented program during their 9.5-hour school days and longer school year. KIPP schools dramatically outperform public middle schools that enroll students of similar demographics, and that’s due in large part to the extra instructional time and the intensive teacher training the charter chain invests in. But KIPP also draws the parents and students who are willing to accept regimentation, high expectations and long hours; its formula might be less successful at public schools, where many families might be less enthusiastic about its methods. In addition, the KIPP program spends significantly more per student than the public school system does, relying on private contributions to make up the difference. Its educational model couldn’t be expanded to all of the state’s middle schoolers even if every preteen yearned for it.

Another unknown is the extent to which charter schools serve as models or competitors and encourage positive change at public schools. Along with the trend toward smaller schools, the success of charters has prodded several school districts, including L.A. Unified, to start “pilot schools” -- schools that stay within the district but have more autonomy and accountability.

At the same time, now that the number of charter schools is reaching critical mass, they are having a disproportionate negative impact on funding for public schools. Through the lottery system, charters enroll students from various schools and grades. Most of the state funding for those students follows them to their new schools. The public schools they leave receive less money, but their operating costs don’t necessarily go down. Giving one student the opportunity to attend a charter should not mean leaving another with fewer resources.

Showing the way at Locke

That’s why Green Dot’s takeover of Locke High School last year was a pioneering step for charter schools, in terms of both leveling the playing field with public schools and minimizing the disruption caused by student transfers.

Under its agreement with L.A. Unified, Green Dot agreed to enroll all students within Locke’s attendance boundaries. That meant taking the gang members, the teenagers who rebelled against the uniforms and hundreds more students than it had room for. It also meant taking less money from other public schools in the area. But Green Dot’s goal is different from that of many charter operators. Its management isn’t looking to supplant public schools, but rather to push L.A. Unified into following its blueprint for educating disadvantaged children: small schools with a high emphasis on safety that give teachers a stronger role in decision-making but require more flexible contracts. Green Dot also spends the same amount per student on day-to-day operations as L.A. Unified.

At the end of the year, Locke’s test scores were at the same bottom level the school has long been known for -- in marked contrast to achievement at other Green Dot schools that drew students through lotteries and were able to control their size. But Locke did become safer and more orderly, with lower truancy rates and higher student retention. Students almost universally praised their new teachers. In theory, such changes should lead over time to better learning -- and test scores -- for all students in the neighborhood, not just those whose parents took the initiative to sign them up for a lottery.

Still, it’s puzzling that Green Dot has announced that founder Steve Barr is “taking on a leadership role in the national dialogue on education reform” and drafting a plan for state and national educational policy based on the Green Dot experience. The charter operator might well prove to have valuable lessons for real-world public education, but we won’t know unless and until Locke’s academic achievement improves.

That’s not to diminish the credit Barr deserves for his efforts to improve education under the same conditions public schools face, and we’re glad that L.A. Unified is planning to replicate that model in the 250 schools under the new initiative. Organizations that apply to run schools would have to agree to give preference to students within each school’s attendance boundaries, which would require a waiver from the state’s lottery rule. Another promising sign: L.A. Unified will favor the applications of charter operators with stronger records of achievement.

In setting out goals for states that want to apply for more than $4 billion in new federal education grants, the U.S. Department of Education has called for one important change on charters. In addition to requiring states to take down barriers to new charter schools, it wants to see their plans for shutting down ineffective ones. But, while seeking to boost charter schools throughout the nation, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has not addressed other key issues: modifying enrollment practices to level the playing field between charters and public schools; ensuring that students at public schools don’t lose out when new charter schools open; and determining whether innovations can be usefully replicated elsewhere.

Charter schools have played an important role in reform, and the best of them have transformed the educational futures of their students. But so far they have not proved a panacea for what ails public education.