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Charter Schools: Savior or Trojan Horse?

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that have independent management and nonunion teachers.  Freed from many of the rule and regulations of the traditional public schools, they create their own curriculum and grading systems and teachers are not required to have a Master’s degree or state teacher certification.  While they cannot use test scores as a criteria for admission, that can target specific student profiles in ways that public schools cannot.

While their popularity (demand for charter schools consistently outstrips supply) is beyond debate, charters schools remain controversial.   Teachers unions and public school administrators argue that charter schools have siphoned away critically needed public school funding from traditional classrooms, their curriculum decisions lack oversight, they pay teachers less and have higher staff and teacher turnover.

As the debate whether charter schools are a needed free market challenge or a mistaken drain on the ideal of quality education for all, here are some things to consider:

  • The evidence that charter school students achieve at a higher rate in unclear.   Graduation rates and college admissions are higher, but reading and math scores are not.


  • Charter schools’ popularity appears to be correlated in some ways to the widespread antipathy towards teachers unions among the general public.  Unions are widely perceived today as defending teachers’ job security over accountability for achieving results.  Unions counter that they are scapegoated for being unable to fully address the multiple social problems that they face in the communities where they teach.


  • In theory, competition should make all schools better.    Having charter school alternatives has made traditional public schools far much conscious of customer service and how curriculum and other decisions can impact enrollment.   Certainly there is much less of the take-it-or-leave it attitude in public education today as a result of charter schools.


  • While some charter school organizations (like the extensive KIPS network) have fulfilled the promise of increased innovation through charter schools, the majority of charter schools have not produced any noteworthy new ideas.


  • Charter school can select students based on certain interest profiles that they seek in their charters.  Traditional public schools do not have that luxury.   In a similar vein, charter schools can send underperformers back to the regular public schools.


  • Charter schools, which are for-profit, typically spend 50% of their budget on instruction compared to 60% in traditional public schools.  They spend less on teacher compensation (which contributes to higher teacher turnover), less on special education, and they concentrate on K-8 more than high school because of lower extra curricular program costs.


  • Charter schools have boards appointed by their private organizations versus ones elected by the public.  While the mediocrity of many local public school boards has been widely seen, private boards increases the risk that, when controversy and problems erupt, charter schools leave less avenues for protest.  Others argue that charter schools, as smaller and more nimble organizations, are actually more responsive to parental concerns than overly politicized public school boards.

Whether charter schools are ultimately successfully or not, they have already underscored one very important point—as our global competitiveness slips, the need for educational innovation has become urgent.     For the reason alone, this movement is here to stay for the new element of competitiveness that it affords.  What is far less clear is whether charters will continue to expand (Chicago alone added 50 of them this academic year) or be capped due to waning political support.  Because charters  school are able to select students using non test-oriented criteria  and can send underperformers or disciplinary problems back to the traditional public school, that this is not a level playing field, is clearly true.  On the other hand, it is equally true that  tradition public school systems and public teachers unions are  unable to sell the public that they offer equal or better value than their charter school competition.   In my opinion, the threat posed to the nation from declining educational standards makes attempts to innovate through charter schools and Curriculum Core essential.    The hope is that at least some of our largest traditional public school systems around the country are in the process of responding positively by rising to the occasion.


Robert Hoyt, Ph.D.


Allied Health Professionals  LLC

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