Friday, April 24, 2009

Charter School Misconceptions

A post about charter schools is sure to scare up the usual litany of misconceptions. As long as ideology drives the debate, then nothing anybody says matters. Each ideologue cherishes their own set of misconceptions.

Charter schools are private schools, or at least, a variation on private schools. Less money goes to public education when charter schools are operating, with the result that public funding can be reduced.

The word “public” in the phrase “public school” means publicly funded. Parents do not pay tuition. In fact, charters schools sponsored by a public entity such as a traditional public school or the county office of education, usually operate on 85% of the per-pupil funding of the traditional public school. The sponsoring entity retains 15% of the funding, ostensibly to pay for stuff charter school parents do not use, such as busing. Some of the 15% also pays for support, such as having the charter school payroll handled along with the payroll for the public entity.

Critics of charter schools recognize the public nature of charter schools when they worry that a churchgoing principal of a charter school is deceptively running a private religious school on the public dime. No one similarly charges a churchgoing principal of a traditional public school. Now I will admit that some founders may have hoped that they could get public funds for their private religious schools by going charter. Even if they successfully secure their charter, the religious aspect immediately goes by the wayside. Typical religious private or parochial schools have weekly chapels; charters cannot.

Charter schools do not have to accept every student. Public schools must take everyone.

The charter for every single charter school by law must contain the standard non-discrimination clause. Many states mandate the exact language of this clause. Charter schools take every student they can on a first-come, first-served basis. Some fortunate charters have waiting lists, but most take all comers. Their funding is based on enrollment numbers just like traditional public schools. Would that our public schools were as desirable as the need for a lottery at some charters indicates.

Charter schools “skim the cream.” Charter schools can expel disruptive students. Public schools cannot.

Public schools routinely kick out extremely disruptive students.  My local school board has expulsion hearings about twice a week.  Because actual expulsion would put the expelled students on the street with way too much free time, such students are not actually expelled in the classic sense, but are sent to alternative education, community schools, the county independent study program or charter schools. Some charter schools specialize in these students.

Charter school are less likely to offer special education services because it costs too much money and the schools are too small.

I do agree that there are fewer special services.  Yet charter schools may have special ed teachers, and if an aide has been assigned to a student, the aide will accompany the student to charter school classes just as readily as to classes in a public school.  Public schools, while providing many more social services than when I was a child, are failing to provide other basic services because of cost.  The most conspicuous example is the school nurse.  In my day, every school had a full-time nurse who had her own office with a couple beds.  Today, one nurse may be responsible for multiple schools.

Charter school teachers are unprepared and unqualified. If qualified, they tend to be inexperienced novices because charter schools pay less than traditional public schools.

What every teacher knows is that public schools tend to hire newer, less experienced teachers over more experienced teachers because of cost. What often happens is that the more experienced teachers will work at a charter school for less pay. Such a situation happens when teachers move their household to a new district. These out-of-district teachers find themselves virtually unemployable in the public schools.

Most credentialed private schools require their teachers to be certified if only to avoid paying the fine for hiring uncertified teachers. I have seen private schools lay off uncertified teachers for the year they are renewing the schools credential. I have also seen private schools pay the fine as the cost of keeping an excellent uncertified teachers.

Half of the teaching staff of many urban or rural traditional public schools may be uncertified. Funny thing is certification is a very poor predictor of teacher quality. Certification only certifies the teacher has completed the state-mandated indoctrination, usually at a college of education. Most colleges of education give short shrift to proven educational philosophies such as Montessori or Waldorf, among others.

Charter schools lack oversight and accountability.

I also agree that sometimes oversight can be a problem. Regardless of the official accountability mechanisms in place, practically speaking, parents handle academic oversight ad hoc. They expect results for their extra effort, or they pull their children. Some charter schools have had their charters pulled for financial hanky-panky.

Charter schools cheat on tests so their scores will look good.

In the beginning charter scores tended to be better than the traditional public schools. Over the years considerable regression toward the mean has occurred so that now there is no significant difference in scores on the aggregate. Teaching to the test plagues charter schools AND traditional public schools.

The existence of charter schools threatens the existence of traditional public schools.

Charter schools are public schools.  If traditional public schools want to diffuse the so-called threat of charter schools, they could do so by providing a superior alternative.  If parents thought they were getting a superior result in the traditional public school, they would not expend the extra time, effort and personal cost to send their children to a charter school. They would happily send their children to the local public schools.

But most parents do not have the luxury of, in their perception, sacrificing their child's short window of academic opportunity to political or ideological considerations.  If motivated parents believe the local traditional public school compares unfavorably to the local charter school, it is quite understandable they would choose the charter school or even other alternatives, such as private schools, or homeschooling.

There are excellent traditional public schools and there are failing traditional public schools. And there are merely satisfactory traditional public schools. There are excellent charter public schools and there are failing charter public schools. And there are merely satisfactory charter public schools. As Dr. P.L. Thomas observed, "Evidence on charter schools, public schools, and private schools all produce a RANGE of quality. There is no evidence that "charterness," "publicness," or "privateness" is the reason for any differences, be it positive or negative." Here is another effort to debunk the persistent myth that from the beginning the entire purpose of charter schools has been to destroy public education.

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