In recent years, charter schools—schools that receive public funding but are subject to less oversight and far fewer restrictions than traditional public schools—have been treated as a silver bullet, a panacea for all of our nation’s education problems. They’re popular among politicians because they sound like something that can improve our country’s flailing education system. They’re independent, their teachers aren’t unionized and funding a charter school—where teachers and principals work on their own to figure out how to solve the school’s problems—is a lot easier for politicians than sitting down and trying to develop a comprehensive education plan that can be applied to all public schools.
This is why President Obama is requiring states to expand their charter schools programs if they want to receive a piece of the 4.35 billion dollars that the federal government will be distributing as part of his “Race to the Top” initiative to improve education standards. For a president who advocates change and transparency and condemns sluggish bureaucracies, charter schools are easy to sell politically.
But the truth is that charter schools are often far from the innovative and independent institutions that our politicians make them out to be. They are plagued by many of the same problems as regular public schools: they can be badly organized and poorly run, they rarely outperform public schools and they are not the solution to our nation’s education problems.
Though charter schools’ freedom gives them an opportunity to introduce innovative methods for education, just as often it means that they aren’t held accountable for their failures. More than seven percent of charter schools opened since 1992 have closed because of financial problems and mismanagement. The Urban Pioneer Experiential Academy, a charter school in San Francisco, was investigated after two students died on a wilderness trip. Not only had the school had a number of previous safety problems, but it was found to have committed academic fraud—graduating students with fewer credits than required. The school was also suffering from severe financial problems—allocating only two dollars a month per student for instructional costs and no funding at all for equipment, staff development or a number of other necessities.
According to a report released by the British Columbia Teacher’s Federation in 2006, charter schools can lead to segregation and social fragmentation. Charter schools are highly specialized, serving students with specific interests instead of providing a comprehensive education. Charter schools rarely have special-needs programs and they enroll 30 percent fewer special needs students than regular public schools. And enrollment at charter schools is self-selecting—parents must seek out the schools themselves. This means that students at charter schools are the ones whose parents had the knowledge and the resources to find the school and apply.
These problems mean that charter schools aren’t really the model of innovation and reform that they’re made out to be. In fact, many charter schools are worse than traditional ones. According to a study conducted by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes in June 2009, only 17 percent of the country’s charter schools performed better than public schools, while more than twice that number underperformed when compared with traditional schools. Evidently, charter schools are not the silver bullet that politicians make them out to be.
Our school system is broken; that much is undeniable. But instead of neglecting the problems—failing schools in order to set up new ones—why don’t we try to work with the system we have? Instead of claiming that the teachers unions are too hard to work with and setting up a system that excludes them entirely, why don’t we work with the teachers and help them to reevaluate their priorities? Since when has America been a country that gives up on its institutions?
The fact of the matter is that only a very small minority of students will ever go to charter schools. Charter schools are more of a placebo than a panacea. Instead of dedicating 4.35 billion dollars from the federal education budget to these schools, President Obama should be working to improve the schools we already have—the ones that serve 75 million students every year.