Are Charter Schools the New Black?

I want to believe that charter schools are a part of the solution to America's public school problem. Lord knows everyone who's a part of the reform establishment thinks they are. And while I think charter schools are showing some undeniable progress, I still have sincere misgivings about the race to pronounce the achievement gap conquered by KIPP, Harlem Children's Zone, et al.

An article in the fashion and style (!?) section of Friday's New York Times
inadvertently outlined the major issues I have with the stampede to build more charter schools. The article, which opens with a scene from a charity poker tournament at the posh W Hotel, highlights the growing number of hedge fund managers and other top finance gurus who are involved in funding New York's burgeoning charter school networks.

It's a fascinating article and details the many ways in which charter schools have generated enough buzz to elicit support from top policymakers as well as niches of society better known for expending capital on yachts and penthouses rather than educational enterprises. Implicitly, however, it shows how charter schools are draining resources and support - financial and otherwise - from the public school system. Technically charter schools are public, and yet they are largely free from unions and certain curriculum constraints. This makes them very attractive for financiers looking to support reform.

But while charter schools may have more freedom to develop alternative curricula and pay teachers as much as they want, the article (and outside observers in general) overstate distinctions between charter and public schools. The majority of public schools in NYC, charter or otherwise, have school uniforms, extended day programs that go to 5 p.m. and Saturday school programs. And yet charter schools have all the hype and the financial support that goes with it.

My main complaint about charters however is with their scope. Charter schools cater to some of the highest need communities in New York City, however most admit students by lottery (a fact the article somewhat glosses over). The article does point out that only, "[a]pproximately 30,000, or 2.5 percent of the city’s public school students, attend charters, although in Harlem and parts of Brooklyn the figure is closer to 20 percent."

Even if Obama and Bloomberg get their wish of expanding charter schools in New York City, they won't service a significant enough number of high need students to fix the achievement gap. On top of that, the high need students they service don't represent many of the most at-risk students - English Language Learners, special ed students and students with behavioral problems. That makes this comment from John Petry, partner of Gotham Capital and a major backer of the Success Charter Network, all the more ironic: “helping the world one person at a time just isn’t for me.”

In bringing attention to the big money behind charter schools, the article highlights several of the flaws I see with the charter school movement. But it's the article's physical placement in the Times made the biggest statement of all. Appearing alongside Burberry ads and articles about online sample sales, charter schools have emerged as the hottest new trend.

I'm not only lamenting the fact that many hard working, progressive public schools are lacking the high society financial support and op-ed columns. I worry what will happen when the buzz dies down. If the gains of these charter schools slow down, or if their major backers simply get bored and moved on to a new hip cause, what then? We need a widespread, sustainable solution to America's education crisis. If charter schools are going to be a part of it, their success needs to be translated into the broader system, rather than nurtured as a passing infatuation.


jonathan said…
Also, while admission is by lottery, there are a number of hurdles that favor involved parents - and we all know what a difference involved parents can make.

Plus, charters have ways to get kids out... an option just not open to most of us.

Anonymous said…
What Is a Charter School?

The basic difference between a traditional public school and a privately run charter school is that with a charter school there is complete control of the school by a private enterprise within a public school district. Although taxpayer-funded, charters operate without the same degree of public and district oversight of a standard public school. Most charter schools do not hire union teachers which means that they can demand the teacher work longer hours including weekends at the school site and pay less than union wages. Charter schools take the school district's allotment of money provided for each student within the public schools system and use it to develop their programs. See:

In many systems, they receive that allotment without having to pay for other costs such as transportation for students to and from the school. Some states, such as Minnesota, actually allocate more than what is granted to public school students. See:

A charter school can expel any student that it doesn't believe fits within its standards or meets its level of expectation in terms of test scores. If the student is dropped off the rolls of the charter school, the money that was allotted for that student may or may not be returned to the district at the beginning of the next year. That is dependent upon the contract that is established by each district.

Also, according to a recent (June 15, 2009) study by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), charter schools do not necessarily perform any better than public schools. In fact, 37 percent performed worse. Forty-six percent demonstrated "no significant difference" from public schools. Only 17 percent of charter schools performed better than public schools.See:

For additional information about charter schools see:
Unknown said…
I teach at a brand new charter school and I have to say that it is a very mixed bag. I've also taught at a public school and a private school over the years (we move a lot), so I have some perspective. We aren't unionized so the teachers do get paid less and work longer hours. We are chronically short on cash (partly because in our state we get paid by the local school districts and some of them drag their feet on this) and the reconditioned computers that we bought aren't even plugged in yet because the not yet finished building has not enough outlets in the classrooms for technology. We did enroll a lot of kids with special needs, which is the opposite of what people criticize charters for (skimming off the easy kids). Many of our older students are with us because they haven't been succeeding in their current schools and their behavior, and/or learning profile is the reason why. We have some very low performing 3rd and 4th graders. I think there is a kid with Asperger's in every classroom. On the other hand, teachers have a lot of freedom to teach with innovation, the staff is very dedicated and for the most part top-notch. I think in time this could be an excellent school, but wow is it going to be a long road to get there.

Popular Posts