Charter Schools: The Vision of their Founders vs. Today’s Reality

Charter school operators and advocates persistently brand charter schools as “public charter schools” even though charter schools are, by definition, always privately managed. However, operation is paid for with tax dollars appropriated by 44 of the state legislatures along with some federal investment and the diversion of school district dollars.

The people who proposed the idea of charter schools 30 years ago imagined how these schools would work and what would be the widespread result for children. What if we compare what the founders of charter schools imagined with today’s reality?

The Thomas Fordham Institute is a sponsor of charter schools and one of the nation’s prominent cheerleaders for these institutions. Chester Finn, president emeritus of the Fordham Institute and Bruno Manno, an emeritus member of Fordham’s board and an advisor to the Walton Foundation, recently celebrated the history of charter schools on their 30th anniversary.  Finn and Manno praise Ted Kolderie, who enthused about charter schools in a 1990 report for the Minnesota Center for Policy Studies. Describing Kolderie as “arguably the foremost theoretician of chartering,” Finn and Manno quote his report:

“(O)ur system of public education is a bad system. It is terribly inequitable. It does not meet the nation’s needs. It exploits teachers’ altruism. It hurts kids. Instead of blaming people…we need to fix the system [and] organize public education in America on a new basis. The proposal outlined in this report is designed to introduce the dynamics of choice, competition and innovation into America’s public school system. How can we use the powerful idea of choice to improve our schools while retaining the essential purposes of public education? This report proposes a simple yet radical answer: allowing enterprising people—including teachers and other educators—to… create new public schools, and ultimately a new system of public education, [by having] the states…simply withdraw the local districts’ exclusive franchise to own and operate public schools. [We need to undertake] divestiture, or allowing the districts to get out of running and operating public schools altogether.”

Now, 30 years later, Finn and Manno brag about what they believe are charter schools’ strengths:

  • “The best charters consistently make greater student achievement gains than traditional public schools.”
  • “Chartering has… pioneered new forms of governance for public education, including statewide Recovery School Districts that restart low-performing schools as charter or charter-like schools….”
  • “Other charter-inspired governance models include ‘portfolio’ districts’… where districts transfer school governance to independent nonprofit organizations…”

They conclude: “Through a combination of choice, competition, and innovation, chartering has bettered the academic and life outcomes of K-12 students, thereby reducing inequality, widening opportunity, strengthening parents, and enhancing civil society.  These are remarkable accomplishments for a thirty-year period, worth protecting and cultivating… When dealing with so many complex institutions across so many different jurisdictions, the challenges of politics, resources, talent, and implementation were sure to be profound.  And when what’s being changed contains as many ingrained practices, hidebound regulatory regimes, and vested interests as American public schooling, these trials are even greater.”

Finn and Manno share a number of reforms they would like to see in charter schools: more attention to authorizing and quality control, need for more funding, and insufficient autonomy.  While they allege that the best charters improve student achievement, they don’t explore the problems with the academic studies they cite.  Neither do they discuss how few “best” charters there are in a sector where charter schools differ from each other and run the gamut of quality. They admit that, “charter promoters have sometimes been naive, occasionally self-interested, and often set in their ways.”

Now that charter schools have been around for 30 years, however, there is significant research demonstrating a whole range of problems on the ground, problems which Kolderie never imagined and which Finn and Manno neglect to mention.

First is the role of money and the absence of sufficient regulation in a sector which has been invaded by for-profit management and where 44 state legislatures, who are subject to lavish lobbying by charter sponsors and advocates, have failed to provide adequate oversight. After all, Kolderie defined  the very purpose of charter schools as escaping the constraints of public bureaucracy.  Jacobin Magazine published a recent interview with, Carol Burris, the executive director of the Network for Public Education, which recently published a report, Chartered for Profit Jacobin‘s reporter asked Burris how it is that so many charter schools—which state laws require to be sponsored by and operated as nonprofit organizations—have become the source of massive profits their operators.  Here is her reply:

“The original charter is secured by the nonprofit, which gets federal, local, and state funds, and then the nonprofit turns around and gives those funds to the for-profit company to manage the school… Now, some of these for-profits only provide a limited amount of services.  But an awful lot of them, especially some of the big chains like National Heritage Academy, operate using what is known as a ‘sweeps’ contract. The reason they’re called that is the for-profit operator sweeps every penny of the public money that a charter school gets into the for-profit management company to run the school. The for-profit then either directly provides services, from management services to cafeteria services, or they contract out with another for-profit company to provide services.  Either way, the goal is to run the charter school in such a way that there’s money left over. And the more money they save by doing things like hiring unqualified teachers and refusing to teach students with special needs, the more money is left at the end of the day.”

It is worth pointing out the irony that we would all be shocked if we discovered the principal of our public high school or our school district’s superintendent profiting from our tax dollars. While such activity is illegal in public schools, money in the charter school sector is handled very differently. Burris explains: “Individuals can become very wealthy if they run charter schools, whether for-profit or nonprofit. Eva Moskowitz, who’s in charge of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City… pulls down a salary of nearly $1 million a year.  By comparison, the New York City public schools chancellor makes about $250,000 a year.” Burris continues: “A lot of this is possible simply because there’s so little oversight.  I was a public school teacher and then a high school principal.  Purchases had to go out to bid, and everything was very transparent.  I couldn’t contract with my Uncle Louie’s furniture company to buy desks. But you can in the charter school world… The charter school lobby says that this model is necessary for innovation. But what is it about the ability to commit fraud and avoid transparency that helps you to be more innovative?  The innovation that we’re seeing too often, sadly, is criminal manipulation.”

Second is the problem that charter schools are parasites on the public school districts where they are located. In some states, as was the case until recently in Ohio, school districts have to pay an additional charter school tuition fee right out of their own budget when children leave for a charter school.  But even in states where public school districts merely lose the state’s per-pupil basic aid when each child leaves, the school district suffers financially.  In a study published by In the Public Interest, economist Gordon Lafer documents that charter schools undermine the fiscal viability of Oakland, California’s public schools by pulling away $57.3 million annually in state per-pupil public school enrollment reimbursements: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts…  When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district…  If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment.” At the same time, charter schools are less likely to enroll students with expensive special needs, which concentrates children who need expensive extra investment in their education in district public schools.

Third, neither the federal government nor the states have consistently protected students’ rights in charter schools.  For example, New York City’s Success Academy Charter Schools has established a reputation for a regimented, no-excuses school culture. For years, however, parents have complained that instead of helping students thrive, the school has established a pattern—for children who don’t fit the school’s culture or for children whose test scores will likely bring down the school’s overall average—of severely punishing the students or repeatedly suspending them until their parents pull them out of the school.  In March, Success Academies was fined $2.4 million by a federal district court for violating students’ rights: “Charter school network Success Academy, which touts its commitment to children ‘from all backgrounds,’ has been ordered to pay over $2.4 million on a Judgment in a case brought by families of five young Black students with learning and other disabilities who sued after the children were pushed out of a Success Academy school in Brooklyn.  Success Academy’s efforts to oust the children even included the creation of a ‘Got to Go’ list, as reported by the New York Times in October 2015, which singled out the students they wanted to push out, including the five child plaintiffs.”

And especially in the South, charter schools have too often violated students’ rights by increasing racial segregation. A 2017 study—by researchers Helen F. Ladd, John B. Holbein and Charles T. Clotfelter of Duke University reported:  “(W)e find that the state’s charter schools, which started out disproportionately serving minority students, have been serving an increasingly white student population over time. In addition, during the period, individual charter schools have become increasingly racially imbalanced, in the sense that some are serving primarily minority students and others are serving primarily white students.”

Thirty years after the first charter school in Minnesota, there is finally some support in Congress to begin reining in some of the most outrageous for-profit charter chains. The House Budget Resolution would disqualify charter schools managed for-profit from the U.S. Department of Education’s Charter Schools Program.

Chester Finn and Bruno Manno have been promoting the same lies for decades. Advocates need to continue to push hard to force the U.S. Department of Education, Congress, and legislators across the states to see what’s wrong with the glossy ideology that has blinded so many.

Nobody Should Be Wasting Time Worrying About When to Administer Standardized Tests

Parents, children, teachers, principals, and school superintendents are living through a time of unknowns. COVID-19 is raging across the states with many public schools operating only online. Some public schools, which have been able to open in person or on hybrid schedules, have subsequently been forced to close already reopened buildings or specific classrooms as COVID-19 cases arise and everybody quarantines.

In the midst of a chaotic situation with no good and stable solutions for many public schools, suddenly last week everybody started worrying about what to do about this year’s standardized tests. The Washington Post‘s Perry Stein reports that outgoing Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos postponed the winter administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the one test administered across all the states, the test that tracks school achievement over the decades and is not distorted by high stakes consequences.

Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Patty Murray (D-WA), the Democratic leaders of the House Education Committee, agreed to delay the NAEP, but said the nation needs some kind of measure of learning loss during the pandemic.  They released a statement declaring that annual state tests mandated under the Every Student Succeeds Act must surely be administered: “Existing achievement gaps are widening for our most vulnerable students, including students from families with low incomes, students with disabilities, English learners, and students of color. In order for our nation to recover and rebuild from the pandemic, we must first understand the magnitude of learning loss that has impacted students across the country. That cannot happen without assessment data.”

While I frequently agree with Representatives Scott and Murray, I think worrying about standardized testing right now ought to be a low priority, and I think the state-by-state achievement tests mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act are the wrong kind of test.  Neither do I believe that the mandated, annual state achievement tests are necessary to help teachers grasp their students’ learning needs during and following the widespread school closures and disruptions in the current school year.  Our schoolteachers are well trained professionals who are prepared to develop their students’ reading comprehension skills, to track problems with computational skills and mathematical conceptualization, and to help support their students emotionally after a period of disruption. The emphasis right now and when children return to classrooms must be supporting teachers facing the complex challenge of serving children who have been out of the classroom for too long. Standardized test scores very often don’t even arrive at schools for months after the tests are administered; they play little role in supporting teachers’ capacity to discern their students’ learning gains or losses.

If we are looking for complex data about the impact of the pandemic on public schools across communities and across states, at some point it will be realistic for the National Center for Education Statistics again to administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is designed as a national audit test to determine learning trends over time.  When it is practical to administer NAEP, certainly that test should happen.

The annual standardized tests, mandated first by No Child Left Behind and, since 2015 by the Every Student Succeeds Act, are designed for an entirely different purpose.  And ironically the purpose and use of these tests for holding schools accountable distorts the results as schools struggle to raise scores at any cost in order to avoid the high stakes punishments that Congress attached to these tests or forced the states to attach. What are these high stakes? States still have to submit to the U.S. Department of Education plans for how to turnaround their lowest performing schools according to these tests.  Some states still evaluate teachers according to their students’ scores. States rate and rank particular schools and school districts according to their aggregate test scores. Many states publish these rankings, which encourages real estate redlining as well as racial and economic segregation across metropolitan areas. Different states place voucher programs or charter schools in school districts where scores are low. Some states take over low scoring schools and school districts and turn them over to appointed commissions that supplant locally elected school boards.  Some school districts have claimed to use school closure as a so-called turnaround plan.

In a profound 2017 book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on standardized testing, documents research exposing flaws in the entire strategy of No Child Left Behind, which combined standardized testing with high stakes punishments for schools unable quickly to raise students’ test scores. Koretz explains social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes are tied to a quantitative social indicator.  In this case, the social indicator is whether or not educators and particular schools can produce higher aggregate student test scores year after year:

“The more any quantitative social indicator is is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

Koretz shows that imposing high stakes punishments on schools and educators unable quickly to raise students’ scores inevitably produces reallocation of instruction to what is being tested, causes states eventually to lower standards, causes some schools quietly to exclude from testing the students likely to fail. Under No Child Left Behind, the high stakes even led to abject cheating—as happened in Atlanta under Superintendent Beverly Hall.

What all this means is that the state achievement tests mandated by No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act—whether administered to students this year or put off until after vaccines are widely available and students return to their classrooms—are not an appropriate tool for measuring the long term impact of the pandemic on students’ lives and learning.

Ideological advocacy for holding public schools accountable drove the passage and implementation of the original No Child Left Behind Act. The idea was that educators can be motivated to work harder through fear if their schools are threatened with punishments.  The idea of attaching high stakes consequences for low test scores remains with us today. Last week Chester E. Finn, Jr., formerly of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and now affiliated with the Hoover Institution, published a widely read column in the Washington Post.  Twenty years ago, Finn strongly promoted No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish strategy, and clearly he continues to believe in using high stakes testing as a threat. Here is a paragraph from his recent column that Finn could easily have cut, pasted, and slightly updated from something he wrote back in 2001:

“The results from those state assessments are the main source of information about school performance and about pupil learning in the core subjects of the K-12 curriculum. The results also indicate whether America’s appalling — and persistent — achievement gaps are getting any narrower. These student statewide test results are the foundation of a school-performance measurement structure that the United States has been painstakingly constructing in the decades since being declared “A Nation at Risk” in 1983. The information from the tests is used at every level of the system. It enables parents to see how their children are faring on an “external” metric, beyond the grades conferred by their teachers, and it helps principals assess how their schools are doing. The results also equip superintendents to gauge what must be done to boost district-wide achievement, and they furnish state officials with the information needed to guide their assistance and interventions.”

Today, nearly two decades after the states were mandated to administer annual standardized tests and after No Child Left Behind imposed sanctions on the schools with the lowest scores, we know that the whole scheme failed to support children’s school achievement and failed to close achievement gaps. Some schools were charterized as a punishment; other schools were shut down; principals and teachers were fired.  And scores on the national audit test, the National Assessment of Education Progress (the NAEP), have fallen in some cases and in other cases remained flat.

I believe it is unnecessary—in the midst of a raging pandemic and a Presidential transition—to worry about when the federal government will mandate widespread standardized testing.  The bigger question is whether and how the federal government will manage a plan to get the pandemic under control and provide enough support to help states and school districts get all children and adolescents back in school.

I agree with Diane Ravitch, who explains: “Resumption of standardized testing is completely ridiculous in the midst of a pandemic. The validity of the tests has always been an issue; their validity in the midst of a national crisis will be zero. They will show, even more starkly, that students who are in economically secure families have higher test scores than those who do not. They will show that children in poverty and children with disabilities have suffered disproportionately due to lack of schooling.  We already know that.  Why put pressure on students and teachers to demonstrate what we already know?  At this point, we don’t even know whether all students will have the advantage of in-person instruction by March.  If anything, we need a thorough review of the value, validity, and reliability of annual standardized testing, a practice that is unknown in any high-performing nation in the world.  We are choking on the rotten fumes of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act.”