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Charter Schools Today — Not an Opportunity for All

On May 4, 2015, President Obama’s proclamation for National Charter Schools week writes “Today, our nation’s very best charter schools are gateways to higher education and endless possibilities, lifting up students of all backgrounds and empowering them to achieve a brighter future.” Political praise for charter schools is largely bipartisan—conservatives like the injection of free-market thinking into our tackling the problems of urban education and liberals extol greater parental choice for parents living near very poor neighborhood public schools. How much is this enthusiasm based on facts versus ideology remains a matter of considerable debate. This blog will focus, as in the past (School Choice), on charter schools as a threat to publically funded special education. This is an important topic for PTs, OTs, and SLPs working or seeking to work with urban public schools.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) released a report last year titled “Separating Fact & Fiction: What You Need to Know About Charter Schools,” which takes 21 statements that it calls “myths” about charters and attempts to debunk them one by one. Now three education researchers have completed a fact-checking analysis of the charter report, coming to some interesting conclusions about each myth. Following is part of this new analysis, which was published by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, and which you can find in full, complete with extensive footnotes on the NEPC0 website. I would encourage anyone interested in reading both of these sources to draw your own conclusions. I have raised general concerns about charter school risks in the past Savior or Trojan Horse?

NAPCS Claim: “On average, charter schools receive less public funding than traditional public schools.”

There is indeed a widespread research consensus that charter schools receive less public funding per pupil than surrounding district schools but this is largely explained by charter schools spending less on special education, student support services, transportation, and food services. In a previous blog, I pointed out that very few charter schools include special education in their mission. This is de facto increasing the budget and resource burden on special education in the traditional public schools. Charter schools can receive a lot more public resources for special education—they resist doing so because their primary justification for getting public funding is producing better test scores. This is the primary reason why, when a charter school mistakenly take a student with special needs or behavior problems, they send him or her back to their local public school. Charter schools are qualified to receive additional public funding if they would serve more children with moderate or severe disabilities and if they would start offering programs such as vocational technical programs which would qualify them for targeted funding as well. Apparently the trade off for more funding that may risk lower test scores is a trade off charter schools are unwilling to make.

NAPCS Claim: “Public charter schools are generally required to take all students who want to attend.”

While it is superficially true, it does not rebut the criticism. A variety of practices and abuses are used by charter schools to shape their enrollment. There are a number of actions charter schools take to help ensure that they end up with a more homogeneous set of higher-performing students. In some cases, charter schools use admission tests to determine “academic interest.” In other cases, charter schools such as KIPP use “admission” or “placement” tests to make decisions on student grade level assignments. Rather than be held back one to three grade levels, struggling students often opt to return to their local district school so they can stay with their peer group.

Many of the so-called “no excuses” charter schools use grade repetition as a means of weeding out weaker students. Empirical research shows that the most prominent predictor of a student dropping out of school is requiring them to repeat one or more grade levels. Harsh or push-out school discipline practices can also drive away more difficult students or drive them out once enrolled.

Because parents and students choose the school, it is almost impossible to avoid self -selection of students and families who are more engaged and who have more knowledge and skill in navigating school choice systems, even setting aside any active steps taken by the charter schools themselves. Given the multitude of problems that inner city schools now face, an argument can be made that this self-selection helps to at least save the few since we are failing to save the many.

Advocates for charter schools point to some very real problems that they seek to address: chronic failures in student achievement and graduation rates, teachers unions that may less interested in raising educational standards than job security and compensation, and a large public school bureaucracy that seeks self-perpetuation of at all costs. There is no doubt that this critique has real merit but “all that glitters is not gold” when the solution offered by charter schools possesses a major contradiction—in their attempt to raise test scores, they have found ways to weed out special ed students who are likely to not help test score measurements. This makes test score comparisons an unlevel playing field. Ironically, even with these advantages, there is no evidence thus far that charter schools as a whole achieve any better test scores than traditional public schools (Charter Performance). Given the services required for special needs students, this is a sad irony indeed.


Robert Hoyt, Ph.D.
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