The Never-Ending Debate over Charter Schools

They're serving millions of students, with hundreds of thousands on waiting lists, and enjoy broad public support. So why do they remain so controversial?
by | July 8, 2013

Since 1991, when the Minnesota legislature passed the nation's first state law authorizing charter schools, some 5,600 of them, serving more than 2 million students, have opened across 41 states. During the 2012-13 school year, more than 500 new charters opened their doors to an additional 200,000 students. Yet 365,000 students remain on charter-school waiting lists due to caps on charter admissions in 26 states. If there is such high demand for charter schools, why are they so controversial?

A 2012 Gallup poll reported that 66 percent of Americans favor charter schools. The rate of support for charters among Americans from low-income communities is even greater, which is notable because more than 54 percent of charter-school enrollees qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. If the very communities served by these schools support charters, why do 30 percent of Americans oppose them?

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Charter schools are public schools subject to the same standards as traditional public schools, but have greater operational and budgetary autonomy. In exchange for this flexibility, charters receive comparatively less public funding while being held to the same or a greater level of accountability than traditional schools. When they fail to meet the standards written in their founding charters, they are subject to being closed. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Education cites survey data indicating that many charters are permitted to remain open even when they fail an equal or even greater percentage of students than traditional public schools.

The autonomy and flexibility enjoyed by charter schools, particularly in hiring of teachers, are the sources of much of their support from those who argue that schools should be operated more like businesses to meet student-achievement performance metrics. Those factors also are behind much of the opposition to charter schools from some teachers' unions and other segments of the traditional public-school community, which argue that teacher credentialing is valuable and that centralized administration is needed to maintain standards.

Critics also argue that charter schools are exploited by private funding interests and in some cases by for-profit charter-management organizations. Critics complain that when philanthropies such as the Gates Foundation and the Tiger Foundation provide funding to charters, those organizations impose their own values without having to be accountable to the public.

Another source of controversy is the way students are often admitted to charter schools. With demand for seats in charter schools outstripping their availability, most charters use a lottery process. Those in favor of lotteries say this is a fair process that prevents selection bias against students with previous academic or behavioral issues. Opponents of the lottery system claim it inherently excludes students without engaged or informed parents who know of the lottery process and deadlines, resulting in a selection bias against students with disengaged parents.

Given issues like these, it should not be surprising that both official and public attitudes toward charter schools vary widely across the country. The experiences of New Orleans and Washington state offer some illustrations of how those varying attitudes are playing out.

New Orleans is the only U.S. city that enrolls the majority, nearly 80 percent, of its students in charter schools, while the remainder attend 22 traditional public schools. Following Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana legislature restructured the New Orleans school system so that the state-run Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish school board share control. Decentralized power is delegated to individual charter principals. Charter schools that fail to meet their charter standards to help students achieve are routinely closed. From 2005 to 2012, the graduation rate in New Orleans schools increased from 57 percent to 78 percent; charter schools have graduated the majority of the city's students.

Washington voters defeated two attempts to bring charter schools before approving a charter initiative last November by just 40,000 votes. The legislation authorizes just 40 charter schools, but it continues to be vehemently opposed by the League of Women Voters, the Washington Education Association, and El Centro de la Raza, which filed a lawsuit claiming that the initiative violates seven provisions of the state constitution. Private funders continue to funnel money into the movement to bring charters to Washington, as the debate is ongoing. However, some voters oppose the legislation because they think it would divert $350 million from traditional schools to charters without a clear accountability structure.

However the issue of charters schools plays out in Washington and in other states, the quality of the schools, their accountability structures and concerns about privatization of the public-education system will continue to be part of the discourse as the number of charters continues to grow. While the issues may be far from settled, the continuing debate has already made some things clear: The best way to move forward with charter schools is to create uniform accountability structures, replicate the charter models that have demonstrated success, and be ready to shut down those that fail America's students.


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