Charter Schools

Charter Schools

The Massey University report on charter schools is now available here.

What are they?

‘Charter schools’ is a term used in the United States to refer to schools which have been given a level of autonomy from school district and/or state control. The amount of autonomy varies extremely widely. On the one hand, some charter schools are given a small amount of power to spend funds as they choose, but without the ability to choose their own staff. At the other end of the spectrum, there are a range of ‘contracted out’ schools (see Edison and private schools), new schools based on principles of autonomy, a ban on union membership in some schools (and thus a ban on access to collective contracts) and other such approaches.

There appears to be over 2,500 charter schools currently in operation, up from nil in 1991, although most are in a few key American (and Canadian) states. Charter schools tend to be much smaller than ordinary public schools (average roll 137, compared with 475), and there is little money available for start-up costs. Many, particularly those run by community organisations or groups of teachers, are very starved of resources. They serve a wide range of populations. Some are focused very strongly on poor, black and immigrant communities. Others appear to engage in some cream-skimming behaviour. Most are unable, at least formally, to select their intake except through ballots.

The average charter school has less autonomy than the average New Zealand school – it could be argued that our whole system is made up of charter schools. But there are differences. The ability to start small, community-focused schools (which exists in theory in New Zealand under s.156 of the Education Act but barely at all in practice) has brought about some interesting approaches. The English equivalent of charter schools were formerly known as ‘grant-maintained’ schools and City Technology Colleges, but the new push in that country is for so-called specialist schools.

Who advocates them?

They are advocated by a very wide range of groups, which is why they have proved a popular intervention. Charter schools are supported by neo-liberals as a move towards publicly-funded vouchers for private education. At the other end of the political spectrum, they are supported by community organisations who want to ensure access to education for school drop-outs, mainly black youth in the inner-cities. The following quote demonstrates the diversity:

…. the condition of education – particularly in urban areas populated by our nation’s most impoverished, disadvantaged children – remains perilous. Performance data show wide, persistent gaps in student achievement... Increasingly, educational reformers view charter schools as a way to provide a more effective education to students who are ill-served by the public school system as it is currently structured. Support for charter schools comes from a wide array of groups, including conservatives who also support taxpayer-financed vouchers; business leaders… African American and Hispanic civic groups; community leaders; and parents searching for ways to reform public education without totally destroying or abandoning it (Fusarelli, 2002 p. 21).

Charter schools tend to be strongly supported by the parents of children who attend them:

There is, in all surveys, high levels of satisfaction with charter schools. Parents rate them superior “in terms of class sizes, school sizes, attention and teachers, quality of instruction, and curriculum. Parents also reported that their children were doing better academically in the charter school” (ibid).

Charter schools are a very popular intervention, but research evidence shows that the promise of innovation and improved educational outcomes is often not borne out in practice. These schools may be popular, but it is unclear whether they are effective.

Main arguments in favour

From the neo-liberal perspective charter schools may offer freedom from state interventions, shifting accountability to the marketplace (a charter school will only survive if it attracts students). Some states allow charter schools to by-pass local teacher employment agreements, and, as a result, have hired large numbers of unqualified teachers (in Texas, 54% of charter school teachers are un-registered).

From the community perspective, charter schools can be a progressive force. Milo Cutter, a teacher who worked with other teachers to set up a charter school, describes a community-based school for at-risk adolescents which maintains a student:staff ratio of 6:1. The school was able to survive in its first few years only because a private power company provided about a third of its funding. It now survives on a mixture of school district and grants funding (Cutter, 1996).

There is some evidence of ‘innovation’ in the literature, including: longer school days and Saturday classes; mandatory summer school courses; bilingual education programmes; schools for at-risk students; alternative curricula such as the international baccalaureate; and a range of teacher initiatives such as multi-age grouping, mainstreaming, use of technology to enhance student learning, performance-based assessments and project based learning.

A paper lauding California’s charter school experience is fairly typical of the literature (Premack, 1996). The focus is on the ‘diversity’ of the more than 100 schools (many of which cater for special needs populations) rather than genuine curriculum innovation. This raises an important question. Is the aim of charter schools in practice merely to deliver the curriculum in ways which meet the needs of niche special needs groups? If that is the case, why is the whole raft of organisational reform needed?

Charter schools may not be selective; they must take whoever comes and places must be filled by ballot when there is overcrowding. This is in contrast to s.156 schools in New Zealand which are of ‘special character’, allowing the school to choose who attends on a range of pre-determined characteristics (e.g. Discovery One in Christchurch selects on parental involvement criteria).

Main arguments against

There are many excellent examples in the literature of innovative school programs in operation in charter schools. These involve, music, exploratory learning, individual tuition and a range of learning tasks. But it is rarely stated is the programme is being compared with. The un-named and undefined ‘public school system’ sits behind the rhetoric, as if each classroom, each lesson and each teacher is uniform; and as if the students sit behind their lined-up desks each day and appropriate knowledge (or not) in a Dickensian fashion. It is as if any notion that ordinary public schools, which educate the vast majority of American youth, can be effective or innovative has been abandoned. So instead the only ‘innovation’ being sought is through these charter schools and through voucher schemes. This is a general criticism of the so-called reform literature, and also of the political forces that advocate reform.

It is hard to evaluate the scheme as a whole. There are huge differences between regions in terms of the rules, funding and requirements of charter schools. For example, one study noted:

Two of the more controversial aspects of the charter school phenomenon, however, are that in ten states, for-profit organisations can legally manage and operate charter schools and in some states, church-related organisations are eligible to sponsor charter schools (Bloom, 2003 p.145).

One California-based research team examined whether the more market oriented charter schools (a subset of all charter schools) were more likely to engage in cream-skimming behaviour (Lacireno-Paquet et al, 2002). They found that, while cream-skimming was not evident, market-oriented charter schools were less likely to enrol children with special needs:

While non-market-oriented charter schools are serving equal or higher proportions of needy populations than the traditional public school system, those with more entrepreneurial aspirations are not. The percentage of special education students served is nearly twice as high in non-market-oriented charters than in market-oriented ones (ibid p. 155).

There are some underlying issues in charter schools. At its more extreme end, charter school legislation is an invitation for any and every special interest group to start and run their own school according to their own values. Some say this is a good thing – that the public system attempts a useless ‘one size fits all’ exercise. But in increasingly diverse communities worldwide, the school yard is often the only place where diverse cultures meet, and if that is lost, is this not a recipe for increased inter-group tensions? Also, there is a major problem of accountability for results.

Finally, while underfunded, charter schools do remove funds from the general public school system which appears, in many parts of the United States, to be of very poor quality. Taking funds from a poor quality system, in which probably the least-motivated families remain, to put into new, small, inefficient, struggling schools seems a recipe for disaster at a systemic level, and ignore the very parts of the system that most need to be improved.

Can the differences be resolved?

Lubienski makes the point that, after a decade of increasing popularity of charter schools, and large amounts of research, we still do not know much about any actual changes brought about by charter schools. His paper reviews “all known research and scholarly studies available that reported evidence of innovative practices in charter schools” (ibid p. 406). He says:

…there is a notable paucity of classroom practices developed in charter schools that were not already available outside the charter school model (ibid, 413).

Lubienski’s meta-analysis uncovers a sustained pattern of “organisational change coupled with pedagogical and curricula conformity” (ibid) in charter schools. This finding has significant implications for policy, not only in but also beyond the United States. If every school in New Zealand is a charter school, then have our reforms stifled rather than encouraged pedagogical reform? If so, might alternative approaches, such as the drive for specialist schools in the UK be more effective in achieving quality reform rather than administrative and organisational change?

Lubienski’s paper concludes with a long discussion of why pedagogical innovation is virtually absent from charter schools. Reasons appear to be supply side – inadequate resources, a lack of vision, failures of the competitive model – and demand side, in terms of what might be the inherent conservatism of parents over what they perceive constitutes a high quality education. The shadow of the upper middle class traditional learning institution may have blighted the innovative potential of charter schools in much the same way that reform in other countries appears to simply reproduce a uniformed, disciplinarian hierarchy.

Much of the literature discusses the financial problems of charter schools in terms of both start-up costs and ongoing funding. Sugarman (2002) notes that there are funding problems endemic to the whole US school system, as well as some issues specific to charter schools. The four issues that are system wide are: inter-district inequalities (an issue taken up by Kozol, 1991); intra-district inequalities; inadequate spending; and special needs funding. The specific issues relating to charter schools, many of which have been covered above, include: how to count pupils (especially when there is a longer school day); enrolling and counting distance learners; the monitoring and reporting regimes to ensure accountability; and the need for supplemental funds (because of high building costs or other issues) (Sugarman, 2002). The author concludes that the growth of charter schools has ironically brought attention to bear on overall inadequacies in the funding regime of US schools, which may need to be addressed in the future.

It seems that charter schools cannot overturn the inequities of the public schooling system. Indeed, a key research finding is that equity provisions tend not to be enforced even where they exist. A worrying element is the growth in segregation, and charter schools cater for specific niche markets. More importantly, it appears there is significant between-school inequities in charter schools (Wamba & Ascher, 2003).

What about the future?

Wells (1998) describes the laissez-faire nature of charter schools as providing freedom but virtually no support. “Furthermore, without additional resources targeted towards the poorest communities, charter school operators have little power to overcome existing inequalities within the large and uneven public education system”.

Wronkovich notes that charter schools may leverage broader change in the schooling system, which he believes is sorely needed:

…little substantive change has occurred in the basic structure of the public system of education in decades. The standard of 180 days of 6.5 hours each that was established at the start of the 20th century has persisted. Compartmentalised instruction based on the model of the industrial revolution is still the norm… We now teach everything from sex education to AIDS education to driver education. In many schools we provide two meals a day to children and try to cope with the many social ills they face. It is no wonder that some present day reformers have sought to escape the overburdening mandates. They see the public education system as one that has become confused about its mission (Wronkovich, 2000 pp.5-6).

However, this view begs the question of why, if broad-based school reform is needed, such an indirect route is expected to be successful. If the public sector needs reforming, why not reform it? The charter school campaigners would argue, it seems, that the public system is too bureaucratic to change, and yet allows for the possibility that this offshoot system will respond quickly to market forces.

The hopes of neo-liberal charter school supporters that they will soon lead to universal vouchers across the USA seem unlikely to be realised. Voucher schemes are not increasing in size or scope, whereas charter schools are increasing in number. The long-term effects of continued charter school growth is likely to be a schooling system which is increasingly fragmented (even more so than in the past), populated by large numbers of small, niche schools of variable quality. Not a model to be emulated by any system that cares about the overall quality of its schools, even though some of the community-based innovations are attractive.

Political views in New Zealand

When politicians talk about ‘more choice’ for parents (see especially Bill English and Deborah Coddington), they are either talking about some kind of voucher scheme or some kind of charter school model. Key political lessons from charter schools are that they are under-funded, when they are able to bypass collective agreements they employ a lot of unqualified teachers, and that, while there are a lot of really interesting individual schools being run by community agencies, the overall increase in innovation is minor and there is no evidence of improved educational outcomes. As well, questions of how to make charter schools properly accountable for their performance remain unanswered.

The National Party 2005 education policy does not overtly adopt a charter school model, but talks about increasing autonomy by several initiatives: bulk-funding teacher salaries (and abolishing national collective employment agreements), allowing schools which have a “reputation for excellence” to own their own property and allowing these same schools to ‘take over’ other schools.

‘Diversity’ and ‘innovation’ are attractive terms, and given recent reforms in England and other countries, we are likely to see politicians advocating more of each. But do we want to see Koreans going to Korean schools, Chinese to Chinese schools, and people with intellectual disabilities once more being corralled into ‘special’ schools? Diversity between types of schools means uniformity within them, and a more divided population. The lesson from charter schools is that politicians need to be challenged on exactly what it is they are advocating, and what the full effects might be.


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