This is the fourth in a series of blog posts called EduFacts: The SOS March in Context.
If you monitor education topics on Twitter you will quickly get the impression that huge numbers of American public schools are being replaced with charter schools. And you will also pick up lot of antipathy toward the schools from some of the most visible promoters of this week’s SOS Marches.
But the numbers show that, in most places, charter schools are insignificant.
Charters are not allowed in nine states (Alabama, Kentucky, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia) and they make up fewer than 3 percent of all schools in 12 other states. More than 10 percent of schools are charters in only three states—Arizona, Florida, Hawaii. Charters in Washington, D.C. get a lot of attention, as they should, because they constitute 45 percent of the schools. New Orleans, where 70 percent of students attend charters, is another hot spot. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has a handy map that profiles the charter school situation in each state, going back to 1999.
So, what’s the source of the concern? Teachers College professors Jeffrey Henig and Luis Huerta say one factor is the “pressure from the Obama administration to remove charter caps, and to intervene more aggressively to hold failing schools and teachers to account, [is raising] the general level of anxiety about charters taking over.”
Other factors? Most charters are not unionized, so attacks on teacher unions in some states stoke fear. Budget cuts add to the sense that any dollar that goes to a charter school is a dollar not available for the school district. Charter critic Diane Ravitch contends that charter schools “in many cities were bleeding resources from the public system.” Others, of course, point out that in most places charter schools get less public money per pupil than do school district schools.
The guiding principles of the Save Our Schools organizers do not address charters directly. But they do call for an end to the resegregation of schools. As my colleague Forrest Hinton pointed out yesterday, that’s code for halting the spread of charter schools because they often enroll large numbers of low-income African American and Hispanic students. It’s true that 52 percent of students attending the nation’s 5,000 charter schools are non-white and it’s also true that more than 60 percent of the students at a majority of those schools are poor. But it is low-income parents of color who are the most dissatisfied with their schools and are choosing to send their kids to charters instead. The average charter school has a waiting list of over 200 students. Also, in many large cities the school systems themselves are almost entirely made up of children of color. So it’s no surprise that charters reflect neighborhood demographics.
Critics love to pick out bad apples—those charter schools where the founders are siphoning off huge amounts of money or getting rid of students who are discipline problems, or where students are not performing well. And it’s true that the most comprehensive study of charter schools found that only 17 percent of them are out-performing and 37 percent are under-performing comparable public schools.
The education discourse is full of broad generalizations from all perspectives, but there is no sweeping conclusion to make about charters because they are so decentralized and diverse. Many charter schools need to improve their performance, just as many public schools do. But they’re not going away. They’re too popular. According to the 2010 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, support for charters has risen from 42 percent in 2000 to 68 percent last year. Support is even stronger among African Americans, 64 percent, and Hispanics, 47 percent. (This came from a 2010 poll by Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance/Education Next)
So, it would be interesting to hear from the participants in this week’s SOS March how they would improve charter schools. My guess is they would say that the schools should be unionized, an idea that most charter advocates would oppose, and they shouldn’t pay teachers based on performance. Those two changes are big. But other than that I bet that their solutions for how to improve charter school performance would be pretty similar to what would work in any school.
Education Sector intern Marley Zeno co-wrote this post and did much of the research.