In Brown v. Board of Education 1953, the Court decided that separate but equal public education is inherently unequal. However, in the case of the charter school movement, policymakers aren’t even trying to feign equality. Choice, autonomy, competition-driven success – America tends to idealize these notions. However, judging by history and the effects that these values have when they manifest in their socio-political, socio-economic applications, the concept of equality tends to be pushed aside. I think it is fair to say that public education reform does not deserve a framework within which equality must yet again become severed from America’s conceptualization of progress.
In forty states, parents may have the opportunity of choosing to send their children to a charter school instead of their district’s traditional public high school. A charter school is a public school – paid for by local, state and federal tax dollars – that operates independently of its local district’s board of education and their respective regulations. As a result, charters have the liberty to develop innovative curricula and teaching methods. Many of these schools specialize in a particular subject matter such as the maths and sciences, the performing arts, or foreign languages. The first charter schools began appearing in Minnesota in 1991, and their numbers have been increasing across the country ever since.
Any organized group, usually comprised of teachers and/or parents, may submit an application with their state in order to open a charter school or to convert a preexisting public school into a charter school. Most states place caps on the number of charter schools that they will allow to open in each district and the percentage of students they will allow to attend these schools. Currently, sixty-four charter schools are running in Massachusetts. However, while the cap on district spending for charter schools has been 9%, only 2% of the commonwealth’s student body currently attends these schools and another 2% are on waiting lists. Admission to charter schools – in Massachusetts and just about every other state — is determined by a lottery that is open to the public. Thus, any parent who chooses to send their child to a charter school technically has the same opportunity for acceptance as every other family applying to that charter school. According to the Department of Education, 4,600 charter schools are operating around the country. The nation-wide enrollment for charter schools is 1.4 million, in comparison to the 50 million students who still attend traditional public schools, and with the recent trend that has been set, the number of charter school students is likely to steadily increase.
In the past couple of years, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have applauded the increasing emergence of charter schools across the country. The administration’s philosophy is that in opening up charter schools, states are opening up “laboratories for innovation.” They envision local districts establishing charter schools so that the charter schools can in turn improve their local public schools by sharing their newly developed methods for education.
The State gauges the quality of a charter school via student standardized test performance, the main reason why Obama has been pushing for more charter schools in conjunction with his 2009 Race To the Top Act. Under this bill, states have been competing for a chunk of a $4.35 billion dollar federal grant. States will win a portion of this money if they demonstrate to the Administration that they have carried out the greatest effort towards the improvement of their public education systems, especially in low performing districts – as measured by standardized test performance, of course.
In light of education reform and Race to the Top, Obama and Duncan have been aggressively encouraging states to expand and open up more charter schools. In a conference call with the press in June 2009, Duncan explained: “States that don’t have charter school laws, or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools, will jeopardize their application [for a portion of this federal grant money]. Simply put, they put themselves at a competitive disadvantage for the largest pool of discretionary dollars states have ever had access to.” The Obama Administration believes that new charter schools will raise test scores in low performing districts. Therefore, if states wish to appear effortful and receive a portion of the Race to the Top funds, they must employ the Administration’s methodology and open up charter schools. (This reasoning, however, that charter schools breed higher performing standardized test-takers, has yet to come to fruition: A recent study released by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) revealed that across the country, on average, charter schools have been slightly underperforming in comparison to traditional public schools.)
Massachusetts recently made the effort and got on board with the charter school movement and Obama’s Race to the Top competition. The Commonwealth passed legislation in January that will lift the statewide cap determining the portion of public education revenue allowed to be spent on charter schools from 9% to 12%, and in the 10% lowest performing school districts the cap will eventually be lifted to 18%. In the past, Governor Deval Patrick has been quite reluctant to raise the cap. While discussing this issue in 2006, Patrick spoke during a gubernatorial debate: “As important as charter schools are and as helpful as they are, we need to come up with a different and better funding mechanism before we raise the cap…The formula works in theory, but in real life, there are real tensions between real families and that is not community building and that is not advancing education reform.”
Patrick was referring to the fact that funding for charter schools comes from the same pool of money – local and state taxes – that public schools fully depend on. Basically, the total budget for a school district’s fiscal year is divided by the number of students who are enrolled in district. This figure represents how much it costs to educate one student for that year, and when a student decides to transfer to a charter school he takes this money with him as his tuition.
Because of this funding policy, many residents view charter schools as boutique schools that leech off of the already struggling public school systems. According to the Boston Globe, Boston’s public school district plans to lose about $50 million to charter schools next year.
Even smaller districts with fewer students chartering out have felt the punch. At the Saving Our Schools Conference that was held at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst this past March, Mike Hussen, the former chair of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District budget committee, spoke to this concern. His district, along with many other school districts across the country, has been forced to make some serious budget cuts. His district had to cut over two million dollars in order to write a budget for the upcoming school year, leaving them with a budget just under 28 million dollars. The committee projects that around 50 students will choose charter schools and that, as a result, over $730,000 of their budget will go to these schools.
Now, Massachusetts does have a reimbursement policy. However, districts qualify for compensation only when they experience a drastic increase in the rate of students chartering-out in a given year. If this occurs, the district will receive 100% of that year’s spending on charter school tuition and then 25% of that amount for the five following years. The theory is that districts will be able to “adjust” to charter school spending during this period of compensation.
Mike Hussen also pointed out that charter schools tend to hold quite hefty reserves of unspent tuition cash. “Charter schools at first had no cap on excess. They would have 25-50% of excess in their bank accounts.” Earlier this year, the Commonwealth passed legislation putting a 20% cap on charter school reserves and mandating that charters must report their spending and reserves to the state annually. Hussen compared this number to the 5% cap on public school reserves, which districts are forced to dip into as expenses continue to increase. Charter school tuition only serves to exasperate this issue. “We’re losing every year,” says Hussen. “Charter school parents are unaware of this impact on public schools.”
Annually, a handful of K through 8th grade students leave the Amherst district for the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School. “Amherst could teach Chinese – we’ve tried to get a Chinese program, but instead we keep having to cut languages out of the program every year,” Hussen exclaimed.
These are some of the effects that the charter school movement has had on small-town Massachusetts. Across the country, low performing urban districts in cities such as New York, Chicago and Michigan having been shutting down long-standing neighborhood schools and opening up charters in their places. As a result, students have been displaced and communities have been broken up.
Still, whenever critics point out the negative effects that the charter schools are having on public schools, advocates are quick bring out the “choice” rhetoric – the idea that the existence of charter schools provides parents with more choice as to the education of their children. Many parents strongly value education and simply want what’s best for their individual children over what’s best for the greater system of public edication. In February, Daniel Clark Sr., field director of “Parent Power Now” and father of an eighth grader who is attending a charter school in Harlem, NY, spoke in a roundtable discussion on Democracy Now: “If it weren’t for Democracy Prep, where he goes now, if it wasn’t for that option, that choice, God forbid, I don’t know what would happen to my son. And so, I’m organizing parents, and I’m fighting so that people like me, parents like me, who aren’t rich, can have a choice, and whose kids, who they love, can go to a school that’s excellent, like Democracy Prep.”
While individual success is encouraging, what happens to the country’s public education system as a whole as more and more of the reform effort is put into increasing the number of charter schools? Charters are not accountable to their local communities, and many people would go so far as to deem the schools privatized. Even when these schools do end up providing high quality education for their students, the vast majority of children do not reap the benefits of charter schools. Privatization and increasing the stratification of quality of education does not seem to appeal to the idea of improving education as a public institution. Education reform cannot go on disconnected from this most basic concept of equality.