Are Charter Schools The Answer?

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is following in the footsteps of the Bush Administration by supporting efforts to increase the number of charter schools in the nation.

Charter schools are financed with taxpayer money but operate free of many curricular requirements and other regulations that apply to traditional public schools. They serve as alternatives to traditional schools and many serve as incubators for educational innovation. They were founded in Minnesota in 1991. 4,600 have opened; they now educate some 1.4 million of the nation’s 50 million public school students, according to U.S. Department of Education figures.

The Obama administration has been working to persuade state legislatures to lift caps on the number of charter schools.

However a report released by Stanford University researchers found that although some charter schools were doing an excellent job, many students in charter schools were not faring as well as students in traditional public schools. The Stanford report — which singles out Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and Texas as states that have done little to hold poorly run charter schools accountable.

The Stanford study, by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, used student achievement data from 15 states and the District of Columbia to gauge whether students who attended charter schools had fared better than they would if they had attended a traditional public school.

“The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students,” the report says. “Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options, and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.”

Charter schools are criticized because in many states they draw away taxpayer money from traditional public schools, and because many operate with nonunion teachers.

Secretary Duncan has been working to build a national effort to restructure 5,000 chronically failing public schools, which turn out middle school students who cannot read and most of the nation’s high school dropouts.

Charter schools do have a single model. As such, it is difficult to expect that all will do well. But it is necessary to have alternative schools outperform the schools they were designed to replace. If not it is silly to have them. States need to monitor them more effectively and close those that fail to perform.