Simply saying the term “charter school” in the wrong circle of people can nearly incite a riot and with good reason. Charter schools take away money from public schools and whenever there is money involved, tensions run high. The opponents of charter schools will point to several studies that show they barely outperform public schools. They’ll say that charter schools cherry-pick the best students, leaving the rest behind. What they won’t tell you is how the traditional public education system has underserved a large portion of the community for decades. They also won’t read beyond the first paragraph of the study’s abstract, and find out that all of their arguments are either misleading or completely unfounded in reality.
Let’s begin with the main argument against charter schools. Studies in 2009, 2013, and 2015 by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University show that charters barely, if at all, outperform public schools. Their argument stops there, because if that’s all you read it seems like the argument is already over. Why are we taking money from public schools for children to go to other schools that don’t perform any better? The problem is that if you continue to look at the numbers and use critical thinking (a skill alarmingly absent in far too many public schools) you will see that charter schools may be one of the best ways to close the education gap in historically underserved groups of children.
The way the traditional public school system operates, has inarguably proved to be a disservice for those in poverty. Schools that surround neighborhoods with lower income residents traditionally receive a proportionately smaller piece of the pie when it comes to funding. The residents of that area have little choice but to send their children to that school, because paying for a private education is not even remotely an option. No education or a poorly funded education; those are their options. Teachers at these schools also generally try to leave as soon as possible, calling in to question the quality of instructors urban schools can attract. The anomaly resident who can afford a private education pays to send their children to a different school.
Low income residents who live near schools with low tax bases, receive a lower quality of education and have no other alternatives. Lower education means lower paying jobs and the cycle repeats itself from generation to generation. Enter charter schools; publicly funded, but privately run. The schools are paid per student. The incentive to provide a quality education and get results skyrockets from the school’s point of view. No students means no money. Suddenly schools are forced to compete with one another to attract students. They are forced to provide results to attract students, but are they?
In underserved subgroups of students, yes, they are. According to the 2015 CREDO study, on average, black students in poverty are shown to have gained an additional 29 days of learning in reading and 36 days in math per year, through quality instruction, over the same groups of students in public schools. It’s also been shown that the results have a compounding effect. Students who stay in charter schools longer receive an increasing benefit year after year. In fact nearly every subgroup of students has been shown to outperform the same corresponding group receiving education in a public school.
Charter schools are giving a choice to a demographic of parents and students who have previously had none. These families have had no access to a quality education, other than the public schools, which in many cases are under-resourced and crumbling at the foundation. Charters foster innovation, and they foster competition. If public schools want their students to come back they have to get better. That’s how a free market works. If you can’t compete, you lose customers. Why shouldn’t education work the same way? Why should the status quo be good enough? If a charter school fails, it goes away due to a lack of students. If a public school fails, it continues to receive funding. In some cases it may receive even more. Without a reason to improve, any industry would become stagnant and education is no exception. One could argue that it has, if fact, already been stagnant for years.
Charters are not the enemy. Public school lobbyists, administrators, and school boards want you to believe that they are because they take money out of the pockets of public schools. There may be some growing pains right now, but these new schools will undoubtedly lead to innovation in education that will be felt across the industry as new best practices are discovered and implemented. We are already seeing that bear out in the numbers. What are charter schools doing differently with these historically underserviced groups, and when will public schools wake up and realize that they are longer the only game in town?