Friday, November 1, 2019

Separating Truth from Fiction as Charter Schools Transition from Shiny Theory to Gritty Reality

Long known as uncomfortable truth-tellers in education reform, the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell has for years tracked the problems that arise as charter schools have made the transition from shiny new idea to gritty reality.

For nearly 30 years charter schools have built a track record of success, particularly for low-income children of color in big cities. But individual schools and the system itself have also encountered unpleasant surprises and failures.

The results are a net positive for students, but there is much room for improvement. Separating the facts from the myths about charter schools could help these experiments in public education live up to their potential, so we offer this series of blog posts as a baseline for a new, honest discussion about the reality of charter schools in America today. Our aim is for this series to help clear the air and make room for the next big improvements in both charter schools and public education in general.

These conversation starters will be posted in this space, about once a week for the next month, with additional installments to follow. We’ll examine the evidence to answer questions such as:

  • Have charter schools increased public segregation?
  • Have they failed to deliver on the promise of innovation?
  • Have charter schools hurt nearby public schools by being a financial drain?
  • Are they magnets for fraud, waste, and abuse?
  • Do charter schools threaten communities and social cohesion?

No large-scale activity can operate without problems, and many of the same issues also apply to district-run schools. Yet opponents cite them as reasons to hobble existing charter schools and cap the growth of new ones. 

In the real world, some charter schools are poorly run, some school leaders misuse money and fudge performance reports, and some teachers do a bad job and treat students unfairly. However, other charter schools have truly inspirational leaders, are developing innovative new programs that could help every public school do better someday, while some are sending nearly all their students to college, and. Both charter schools and traditional public schools have good stories and bad ones to tell.

Charter schools would cease to exist if millions of families didn’t consciously choose them for their children. The question for policymakers should be how to properly govern them—to prevent abuse, protect vulnerable students, encourage excellence, and ensure charter growth has positive—not harmful—implications for children in other public schools. 

We hope these posts will restore balance and bring data to the debates over the risks and benefits of charter schools. Readers looking for pro- or anti-charter polemics will be disappointed: charter schools, both individually and as a movement, make real contributions but also have real problems.  As our future blog posts will show, most of these problems are endemic to all public education, not just to charter schools. Fixing them should be a priority for everyone. 

Coming Monday, the first series installment looks at the relationship between charter schools and segregation.

Tue, 12/10/2019

Attending charter schools appears to reduce antisocial behavior, like crime and discipline infractions, and increase positive social behavior, like voting.

Tue, 12/03/2019

Attackers and defenders of charter schools are free to pick cases and attach labels, but we shouldn’t lump actual corruption or theft in with debatably unwise uses of funds.

Wed, 11/20/2019

Our network participants are already showing the potential benefits of the shift toward local problem solving.