Part 1 of 4
Too many lazy, misinformed journalists have developed a bad habit when reporting about the national K-12 school choice movement.
They tend to use the term “charter school” as a synonym for school choice, which is increasingly inaccurate.
They assume that the mainstream charter school community is on the same page as the incoming U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, a noted school choice advocate. That’s definitely not the case.
The sad fact is that the charter school sector and the broader school choice movement have been moving in opposite directions for quite some time.
The school choice movement is about maximizing the number of publicly funded K-12 educational options across the nation, through the development of more charter schools, as well as private school voucher initiatives, education savings accounts and other programs.
The goal is present parents with a large, growing and diverse menu of school options, to increase their chances of meeting the needs of their individual children.
Choice advocates believe charter schools – and all publicly funded choice programs – should succeed or fail through their ability to attract and retain students, and satisfy parents who were motivated to move their children out of traditional schools for various reasons.
They trust parents to determine what schools work best for their kids.
But the mainstream charter school community, under the leadership of progressive education reformers, clearly does not share that philosophy.
Its focus is on limiting the number of new charter schools by creating tough qualification standards, closing charter schools that don’t quickly produce high student test scores, and opposing other types of school choice options.
“The closure of schools that persistently fail students is one hallmark of the charter school philosophy—and authorizers need to enforce it,” Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the influential National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA), wrote in Education Next.
Critics say that heavy-handed approach has slowed the momentum of the charter school movement.
“We used to see 13 to 15 percent growth every year (in the number of charter schools), and closures were around 6 to 7 percent in some states and 12 to 15 percent in others,” Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform, told EAGnews. “Now we’re only seeing an eight or nine percent growth rate every year, and around a 15 percent closure rate in most states.”
Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, says charter schools are still very much part of the school choice movement, because they are by far the largest publicly-funded sector outside of traditional schools. But he admits the charter sector, by choice, is not focusing on expansion.
“I do fear they have been undershooting their potential for growth, largely due to shifts in state policy,” Eden told EAGnews.
Slower growth means fewer options for thousands of parents waiting to get their kids into charter schools.
“Across the country students are stuck on charter school waiting lists – with most schools reporting waiting lists of nearly 300 students each – and demand continues to outstrip supply, suggesting that charter schools could grow significantly faster, to serve more students, if the policy environment were more supportive,” the Center for Education Reform wrote in 2015.
NACSA, the leading voice for strict regulation of charter schools, aggressively lobbies for state laws that automatically kill charters that don’t produce satisfactory student test scores, preferably within five years of their establishment.
Between 1995 and 2005, a total of 537 charters schools were closed across the nation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Between 2006 and 2014, that number jumped to 1,761.
As the Bellwether Education Partners noted, “While closures occur for a variety of reasons, authorizers are increasingly closing schools for poor academic performance.”
The growth rate of charter schools still outpaces the closure rate, due to the ongoing popular desire for alternatives to traditional schools. But with the new laser focus on closures, many wonder when that trend will flatline.
Nobody disagrees that bad charter schools should close. But if a charter has enough students enrolled to continue to function – because parents choose to keep those students enrolled – how should “bad” be defined?
NACSA does not recommend asking the parents of students in “low performing” charter schools how they feel about the situation, before imposing the death sentence.
Do the mothers and fathers believe adequate progress is being made? Does the school have characteristics, beyond academics, that benefit their children? If the school is so terrible, why do they still enroll their kids?
The bureaucrats might learn a few things about children, families and the complex role of education if they asked those questions, and actually listened to the responses.
There is evidence of promising charter schools being prematurely eliminated, due to increasingly harsh default closure laws. There is evidence of charter schools getting off to slow starts, and eventually becoming academically excellent, in the absence of default closure laws.
When charter schools close, many of the displaced students pay the price.
“Matthew F. Larsen with the Department of Economics at Tulane University looked at high school closures in Milwaukee, almost all of which were charter schools, and he concluded that closures decreased high school graduation rates by nearly 1o percent,” Progressive.com reported. “He found that the effects persist ‘even if the students attend a better quality school after closure.’”
Progressive regulators, particularly the people who run NACSA, are not completely dedicated to closing charter schools. They favor opening new charters, as long as the new schools meet their narrow expectations. They encourage the replication what they consider “successful” charter schools, as determined by student test scores.
Critics say that cookie-cutter approach has zapped the innovative, independent spirit from the charter school movement, resulting in too many charters being too much alike – and far too much like traditional public schools.
“It’s forcing existing charter schools that aren’t being closed to look like the very schools they sought to be different from,” Allen said. “Charter schools were created to have a different approach and to personalize the education experience.”
Progressive regulators are not only limiting the number and types of charter schools, but want to eliminate other forms of publicly-funded school choice options, as well.
They reject the notion of state-funded private school voucher programs, which offer children opportunities they could otherwise never afford.
They are highly critical of online virtual schools (charter and non-charter), which provide a crucial service to many at-risk students who might otherwise drop out altogether. They are skeptical of Education Savings Accounts, which allow parents to use public dollars to customize their children’s education.
“We’re not in support of parent choice for the sake of parent choice,” said Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association.
“We as the charter school sector and the education community need to understand the damage that choice can cause,” Steve Evangelista, co-founder of Harlem Link, a charter elementary school in New York, told Chalkbeat.
Those statements speak for themselves.
Tomorrow: NACSA lobbies states to regulate, close charter schools.