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The ‘Bargain’ – Responding to An Attack on The Nation’s Charter Schools

On Sunday October 5, 2014, Washington Post reporter Valerie Strauss launched a series of attacks on charter schools relying heavily on biased and inaccurate data. Claiming that the “Charter school ‘bargain’ was a raw deal” and stating “concerns are rising as the number of charters overall is increasing.”

The allegations that charters are “stunningly opaque…and turning out to be anything but accountable” are misguided and misinformed. The Center for Education Reform would like to separate fact from fiction:

1. Performance-based accountability is the hallmark of charter schools and reforms aimed at improving student learning. Unlike all other public schools, charters must be proactive in their efforts to stay open. They must set and meet rigorous academic goals, and actually meet or exceed their state’s proficiency standards. Unlike the traditional public schools that intentionally remain under the radar, charter schools operate under intense scrutiny from teachers unions, the media, and lawmakers. In states with strong charter school laws that allow for objective oversight, it is clear that performance-based accountability is working.

  • States with strong laws help to create the highest-quality charter schools. In states with multiple and independent authorizers, stronger, more objective oversight is used to ensure that successful charter schools remain open and those that fail to perform are closed. States with multiple authorizers were home to nearly 80 percent of the nation’s 5,400 charter schools in 2010-11.
  • Independent charter authorizers play an essential role in the health of the charter school movement. Independent authorizers hold charter schools accountable, and these schools generally are more academically and operationally sound. An authorizer other than a local school board has granted over 60 percent of charters across the country.
  • States with charter school laws graded “A” or “B” saw 355 new charter school campuses, whereas states with laws graded “D” or “F” saw just 13 new charter campuses.
  • In 2011, of the approximately 6,700 charter schools that have ever opened in the United States, 1,036 have closed since 1992. That means 15 percent have closed for cause. While a closure rate of 15 percent is nothing to boast about, it is still lower than the small business failure rate and dramatically higher than the percentage of conventional or traditional public schools ever closed.
  • Nearly 20 percent of all closures occur because a school failed to meet acceptable student performance levels (18.6 percent). Many assert that charter laws are only working when schools are closed for failing in their mission to educate kids. But the reality is that operational and financial deficiencies are apparent far before any academic assessments can be meaningful. Approximately 42% of charter schools close for financial reasons, mainly driven by low student enrollment or financial inequities.

 

2. Education can be for students and for-profit. Education management organizations not only bring capital and investment to communities they serve, but they help assume financial risk on behalf of their non-profit partners, and make up for the funding inequities charter schools face compared to their traditional public school counterparts. In fact, their entire business model is predicated on student outcomes; if it’s not, they will lose “business.”

  • Charter schools receive on average 36 percent less per pupil than their traditional schools whose management has no accountability or incentive to improve student outcomes. Not only do education management companies bring investment and capital to communities, but they also assume great financial risk on behalf of their non-profit clients to build infrastructure and facilities in communities that in any other industry would most likely not be considered ideal or open to business.
  • Ninety percent of charter schools that fail because of financial reasons are independent, grassroots startups. These startups lack connections to the money and power that often and generously are a factor in the more successful networks, whether from taxpaying companies or 501(c)(3) organizations. Education management companies bring investment and capital to the communities they serve, creating jobs, innovation, and cost-saving strategies.
  • Results-driven business models can transform the lives of children. In Florida, for example, the Ft. Lauderdale based Charter Schools USA oversees 38 charter schools in the Sunshine State, and as a network, exceeded the state’s average proficiency rate in math, science, reading and writing. Over 70 percent of Charter Schools USA schools earned an “A” or a “B” on the state grading system, with 90 percent maintaining or improving their grade from the previous year.

 

3. Narrowing in on a few bad apples and cases of mismanagement without focusing on the bigger picture surrounding these instances leaves out critical context. Too often, these bad apples that fail to produce audits, pay vendors, or conduct basic, required oversight processes is a sure sign that whoever is in charge is not capable of leading a strong organization, or perhaps that the board is not focused on its duties and responsibilities. Weak charter school laws also are contributing factors to these instances, as they do not create the best environments for charter schools to thrive.

  • It is said that a few bad apples shouldn’t spoil the bunch. But indeed the fact that nearly a quarter of all closed charter schools closed because of ethical violations makes a big impression on advocates and opponents alike. Fully 24 percent of all charter schools that are closed do so for reasons related to administrator or sponsor misbehavior. Sponsors of these schools may deliberately misspend, misrepresent, or refuse to hold the charter school accountable to its contract.
  • While the research shows that ineffective schools first demonstrate their ability to remain viable within the first couple of years, far before signs of academic trouble, the bad apples often stay around longer than that. This is because state actors often cannot determine the cause of failure. But when truly independent, sound authorizers have the authority and accountability to properly monitor their portfolio of schools, charters that show any sign of potential “mismanagement” are caught early and addressed in periodic reviews.
  • Pointing to a few bad apples takes away from the fact that more parents want choices, with the length of the average charter school wait list growing to nearly 300 students in 2012.
  • In the 2013-14 school year, 600 new public charter schools opened their doors to an estimated 288,000 additional students, meaning now more than 2.5 million students now attend nearly 6,500 schools nationwide. Over the past 10 years, charter school enrollment has risen by 225 percent and the number of new schools has risen by 118 percent.
  • In York, Pennsylvania, where people are petitioning against the charter school takeover, it was discovered that information was actually being blocked from the community, as the district was encouraging the public to attend a rally against the charter school takeover rather than the information session the night before the rally. The reality is that when given accurate information about public charter schools, Americans are 73 percent in favor of them.
  • While mismanagement and cases of fraud exist in every sector, a University of Arkansas study reveals that charter schools are generally good stewards of public money, using public dollars far more efficiently than traditional public schools. For every $1,000 invested, eighth grade charter students achieved on average an additional 17 points in math and 16 points in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), more commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card.

 

4. There’s no question academic performance is the most important factor in whether a charter school succeeds or fails. But how that performance is determined and by whom – and whether the performance of every child can influence whether a parent retains a critical choice of a school that is working for their child – is often ignored in today’s debate.

  • Before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, 78 schools were deemed as failing. Now, only nine schools in New Orleans are deemed failing according to ratings released in October 2013.
  • From 2005 to 2011, the percentage of New Orleans students scoring proficient went up from 35 percent to 56 percent. That’s a 21 percent jump in achievement in a six year time period. Comparatively, during that same timeframe, statewide proficiency for Louisiana students went up only eight percent.
  • The Louisiana CREDO study results indicate Pelican State charter school students learn more in a school year than traditional students. The study also separately analyzed New Orleans students – where the majority of Louisiana’s charter students are located– concluding that over a six-year period, charter students gained four months more learning in reading and five more in math. Findings also suggest that charter school students displayed learning gains regardless of whether or not they attended a school under the auspices of a Charter Management Organization, or CMO.
  • Dr. Caroline Hoxby’s report on New York City charter school achievement uses the gold standard of research methods, “comparing lotteried-in students to their lotteried-out counterparts.” Results from the study found that a student who remains in a charter school through eighth grade will score 30 points higher in math than a student in a conventional New York City public school.

 

With over 1 million students on charter school waiting lists, what’s clear is that strong laws and strong authorizers really do matter.

Strong state charter laws and strong authorizers give schools a better chance at success because they hold them accountable and can offer them services and management tools to succeed. They require annual reports on finance, achievement and operations, but they don’t overburden schools with reporting so they can concentrate on educating children. That’s the real story that should be told.