Charters Need to Rediscover Purpose

The performance of charter schools is variable and inherently dependent upon each individual school’s leadership. Just as serious investors would never invest in an entire industry, organizational quality is independent of sector and structure. The CREDO report from Stanford University supports this notion, showing that only 17% of charter schools fare better in terms of academic achievement growth than traditional public schools, while 37% are worse. However, this research characterizes only how charter schools perform with respect to the students they serve. The key issue in this debate is not how well charters do with the students they enroll, but rather, what is their impact on the entire school system?

In New Orleans, which has the largest concentration of charter schools in the country, a group of families of special education students is suing because the city’s charter schools don’t provide sufficient accommodations. In a similar vein, KIPP charter schools have had questionably high rates of attrition, suggesting that their good outcomes are the result of selection, rather than pure educational quality. Further, a study of North Carolina charter schools showed that they are both segregating, by enrolling disproportionately large populations of African-Americans and, once enrolled, these students’ achievement growth declined relative to their prior performance in public school. Taken together, charter schools in North Carolina actually widen the black-white achievement gap.

For charter schools to truly serve the full range of students, they will need to take on a greater challenge than the present model of waitlists and lotteries, expulsions and denials of accommodations. Some are already doing this, such as Friendship Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, where it has partnered with the local school districts to operate a few of the districts’ low performing public schools on a temporary basis. The schools remain open enrollment and have to serve any student that walks through their doors. The partnership is on a four-year timeline, and after that time, the operation of the school will be handed back to the district, with the goal that the school will be high performing by that point.

Very few charter schools are willing to engage in this type of school improvement, however, and most seek to create an isolated and exclusionary utopian education. While such an endeavor is a fine aspiration for a private school, for charter schools to fulfill their purpose of innovating for the betterment of the public education for all students, there must be a direct engagement with traditional public schools.

Note: Grayson Cooper previously interned with Friendship Public Charter School, however this article is solely reflective of his opinion.

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