The charter movement: 5K schools in 18 years

Via my inbox this week, I’ve been informed (and reminded) about the continued growth of independently run, publicly funded charter schools since 1992.

A news release from the Center for Education Reform, which advocates for school choice, celebrated a recent milestone: more than 5,000 charter schools now operating in the United States.

At a time when states are scrambling to compete in President Obama’s signature ‘Race to the Top’ effort, they really only need to look in their own backyards to see one reform that continues to make a difference in the lives of millions of kids. Today, 5,043 charter schools in 39 states and the District of Columbia are providing nearly 2 million families the option to break away from schools that are failing students and into schools that are serving them. Tens of thousands of others are on waiting lists for the same opportunity.

Nuance is scarce when it comes to the public debate over charters, which are largely un-unionized (at the moment) and enjoy a range of freedoms rarely granted to traditional schools. 

Detractors are often quick to pounce on any charter school, no matter how seemingly successful, because of the broader movement that school represents (and/or its unfair advantages, and/or and its effect on public education as a whole). On the other side, blanket statements like the one quoted above make it sound like charter schools are The Answer, as if they were all equally stellar.  

I didn’t blog about the well-publicized Stanford University charter school study that came out this summer, but I’ll do it now. It compared the test score gains of students at 2,400 charter schools in 15 states and Washington, D.C. to those of a demographically similar “virtual twin” in the traditional public school system.

The Stanford researchers found little difference between nearly half of the so-called twins on reading and math tests. In about 17 percent of the cases, the charter school twin fared better, and in 37 percent the regular public school twin did. Low-income students and English learners did better in charters than in traditional schools; blacks and Latinos did worse.

The researchers concluded that “tremendous variation in academic quality is the norm, not the exception,” and “The problem of quality is the most pressing issue that charter schools and their supporters face.” Here’s how the executive summary ends:

The charter school movement to date has concentrated its formidable resources and energy on removing barriers to charter school entry into the market. It is time to concentrate equally on removing the barriers to exit.

Do you agree the movement has over-emphasized quantity? The Oakland school district, which has approved dozens of charters over the years, especially when it was under state control, seems to be slowing down; the board rejected another charter last week, for the online charter school California Connections @VIMS (not the Waldorf-inspired school, as I previously stated). 

On the other hand, given the looming budget deficit and the fiscal impact of charter growth on OUSD’s enrollment and bottom line, I wouldn’t be surprised if those decisions are as much about quantity — meaning, as few as possible — as quality.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Gordon Danning

    Union Supporter – But:

    At Oakland High School there are many, many teachers who keep their rooms open after school, including myself, and no one has ever, ever, done anything to dissuade them (except the janitors who want to clean the rooms). This long-standing myth of peer pressure being brought to bear against teachers who go the extra mile for their students seems to be just that — a myth.

  • TheTruthHurts

    Wow. I’m far too late to this party, but it is clear that this is THE hot button issue in the District (at least for insiders). Every time the word charter shows up, count on 20+ comments from every end of the spectrum.

  • On The Fence

    Gordon Danning:

    Let me piggy back on your comment. Your neighbor up the block, Edna Brewer Middle School, also has many, many teachers who open their doors very early and stay late for free tutoring, academic help, a safe place, musical practice, etc. They must do this because of their dedication to their profession, because they are certainly NOT compensated (they are one of the bottom 5 in funding).

    Sorry to drive home my earlier point folks, but Edna Brewer’s API is 822, Montera’s API is about 814, and OMI’s is only 708. Money doesn’t seem to be the answer… Maybe we should start looking a what our Oakland traditionals are doing right!

  • del

    WOW US-B, you really found a doozy of an (ex)employee to talk to. Let me be very clear that every teacher at my (public) school is expected to stay after the school day to help kids who need it—not expected to by administration, but expected to by the students, colleagues, and community. And they meet and exceed that expectation, and I challenge anyone to come here after 3 pm and find a classroom with out a kid in it (not counting the 200+ that stay for after school programs).
    As for kids being in the hallways before school, its true that we do discourage that—I work at a middle school, and unsupervised people of that age are a danger to themselves and to the student work on the walls! However, we do implement a pass system so that students can visit their teacher if their teacher is expecting them. As for during class, clearly no student should be out of class anyway, and you can be sure I am giving a lot more than a mean look if I see a child in a hallway without an adult escort.
    As for charters being the opposite, clearly such a blanket generalization is not meant to be taken seriously. However, take a look at BayTech, where students have to wait OUTSIDE CAMPUS (yes, on 48th street & telegraph, in my front yard) until the bell to start school rings. Luckily I leave early enough that I’m not the one breaking up the fights or telling the kids to get out of the street… I just have to pick up after them when I get home.
    Also, although I don’t expect you to reveal it, I’d LOVE to know who is suggesting teachers shouldn’t stay late to help kids. I do not appreciate them suggesting that I or my colleagues do not fulfill our moral imperative to educate the students.

    And about OMI—I have no problem with the school & I’ve seen many kids do well there, but we also have 6 students here that were booted from OMI. SUre OMI can say they “chose” to leave, but when a kid is in the office to register and he’s crying and his mom is crying I don’t think it’s a choice. Please also consider the “demerit” system used there that is not legal for use at public schools, and has led to many students being put out of the school.

  • Union Supporter-But

    Would those from an elementary school weigh in. The behavior I identified was from a second grade hills teacher.

    And, Gordon, in the hills, in elementary school when teachers keep their classrooms open there is EXTREME pressure.

    Gordon: You are also right about one thing, I have seen many, many middle school (Edna Brewer having the greatest number) teachers keep their classes open after school and during lunch – before school as well. I know of many high school teachers who do so as well. I should have been much clearer in my statement.

    CLARIFICATION: The elementary schools in the hills of which I am familiar do not allow their students in the halls before or after school and teachers do not help students or open their doors before or after school. Students who are in the halls to show their work or to say hello to a past teacher are reminded that they are disobeying school rules for being in the hallway of their school without permission.

  • Caroline

    Union Supporter But … That’s not an accurate description of public schools in San Francisco. In this case I can’t speak for Oakland.

    Y. and everyone, I read Jonathan Schorr’s book “Hard Lessons,” about the founding of an Oakland charter school (really two, focusing mostly on one, E.C. Reems). Bear in mind that Schorr’s angle was explicitly pro-charter and that he subsequently went to work in the lucrative charter school world. (Schorr was Katy’s predecessor as Oakland Tribune education reporter before he went over to the dark side — oops, I mean changed careers.)

    His book made it abundantly clear that charter schools do ANYTHING THEY DAMN WELL PLEASE, unchecked, unchallenged and unhampered, rules and laws be damned. Please read it before you argue with me. Here in the reality-based world, sharp-eyed regulators are NOT poking around charter schools to see what process they’re using to expel students, or anything else either. Please recall the myriad forms of lawbreaking and wrongdoing that went on at Uprep — unsuspected, unregulated, unobserved and unchallenged — until insider whistleblowers contacted the press. Given that total lack of scrutiny, any charter can kick out any student at any time it pleases.

  • Alice Spearman

    Thank you for voting for me, much of what you wrote I agree with. But I do have to follow the law, it is a fact that some of my neightbors push the limit and get away with it, public education gives folks that right, charters do not have to give people that right. Remember, You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. Those students who do not fit the traditional mold, still must be served, and we serve them. Continue to be a good role model, it is noticed by more students than you think.