On charter schools

The following was written by Kim Burningham.

(Note: In this email, Mr. Burningham speaks in his own behalf; the point of view expressed in this blog does not necessarily represent any organization of which he is a part.)

In Utah, charter schools have been operating for 14 years.  Over those years, many observers have asked my opinion of these schools.  Some asking are vociferous opponents; others are supporters.  My typical answer is:  “Some charter schools are excellent; some are not good.”  This opinion is based on my direct and long experience:

1.      Charter Schools are public schools.  Many observers misunderstand; they think charter schools are somehow not public.  Incorrect.   These schools do have more flexibility, but they are required to teach the basic curriculum, receive public monies, and (with some preferential treatment to the founders) are open to the public.  The confusion continues because some charter schools appear to be only “private schools in waiting.” That is not true of others.

2.      The quality of charter schools varies considerably; more, I believe, than the regular public neighborhood schools.   Because charter schools have more flexibility in operation I have discovered although some of them are excellent, others may be deplorable.  In fact, because regular neighborhood schools are more closely supervised, I have never seen a one as poor as one charter school I visited in Milwaukee.

3.      National and local studies have shown on average, charter schools are not superior, and are in a significant number of cases, inferior to neighborhood schools.  I wish to emphasize this is “average,” and I personally know some charter schools above the average.  A 2010 report states,  “Only 1 in 6 charter schools significantly outperforms their traditional counterpart.  And more than a third underperform.”  (Amanda Ripley, “A Call to Action for Public Schools,” Time, Sept. 20, 2010, p. 38.)

Although some improvement may be observable, a study released in the last weeks draws a similar conclusion.   National researcher Devora Davis, explains that “in terms of what (Utah charter students) learn in year, it is less.”  The Salt Lake Tribune reported, “Utah charter school students learn less than traditional district students over the course of a school year, losing the equivalent of 43 days of math and seven days of reading according to a national study.”  (Ray Parker, “Study: Utah charter students learn less than traditional school students,” The Salt Lake Tribune, June 25, 2013)

In 2012, Economics of Education Review printed a study by Yongmei Ni and Andrea K. Rorrer of the University of Utah.  (“Twice considered: Charter schools and student achievement in Utah.”)  They concluded “that charter schools on average perform slightly worse as compared to traditional public schools, a result that is primarily affected by the low effectiveness and high student mobility of newly opened charter schools.”  However, they further concluded, “When charter schools gain more experience they become as effective as traditional public schools, and in some cases more effective than traditional public schools.”

The research varies somewhat, however,  an assertion that on average charter schools are better than traditional schools is clearly false.

4.      Some charter schools are in an excellent position to fill  specific student needs.   Some charter schools are uniquely fine--especially if the charter school in question has been created to fill a specific need. For example, if students have a particular interest in film, East Hollywood Charter High School in the Granite District may be able to better meet the needs of young people with interest in making movies than a neighborhood school.  If the child is autistic, then Spectrum Academy in southern Davis County (another charter school) may provide answers.   But if the charter school in question primarily duplicates services already provided in the neighborhood school, I am far less enthusiastic.

5.      Advocates for the charter schools frequently assert charter schools introduce more competition into the education arena; they believe increased competition improves the overall system.   For instance, Mike Martineau, Ph.D., (University of Utah) in his study released this year, The Competitive Effects of Charter Schools in Utah, provides data suggesting mostly positive competitive effects on traditional public schools when a charter school is opened in a geographically competitive area.  To the degree that is true, charter schools deserve our careful consideration.  However, in the first place, charter schools are not the only way to introduce competition;  many public schools take advantage of competition in other ways.   Secondly, other advocates believe quality is improved by more cooperation not competition.   I suspect some compromise between those two principles is closer to the truth.

6.      Parents considering enrolling their child in a charter school should do so carefully.    The charter school may be able to fill a need for your child which is not available in the neighborhood school.  If, however, the charter school is basically replicating the experience available in your local school, think twice.  Remember, when you send your child to a charter school you may be required to take on additional responsibilities: transporting your child to the school not in your neighborhood may be costly.

7.      For some, attendance at a charter school may be a decision to desert the local school and flee to some place where the students are more to the parent or student’s liking.   I hope that this is not the motive of attendees.  Across the country, however, we have seen some people abandon the common good, in favor of preferential treatment for their own.   That, I believe, is a mistake and an embarrassment.

In summary, some charter schools provide outstanding alternatives and may deserve the parent’s and student’s consideration.  In general, however, I believe the time and effort a parent may devote to a charter school may be better spent to support your neighborhood school.

I believe public neighborhood schools are one of the most remarkable achievements in our country’s history.   The idea that every child will, in his or her own neighborhood, be able to receive an excellent education is utopian.   As a society, we would be unwise to abandon that value to some temporary, elitist, or self-centered decision.

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