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.

Faith in High Stakes Testing Fades, Even Among the Corporate School Reformers

After a recent twenty-fifth anniversary conference at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, Bothell—a Gates funded education-reformer think tank, Chalkbeat‘s Matt Barnum summarized presentations by a number of speakers who demonstrate growing skepticism about the high-stakes, standardized testing regime that has dominated American public education for over a quarter of a century.

Because the Center on Reinventing Public Education is known as an advocate for portfolio school reform and corporate accountability, you might expect adherence to the dogma of test-and-punish, but, notes Barnum:  “The pervasiveness of the complaints about testing was striking, given that many education reform advocates have long championed using test scores to measure schools and teachers and then to push them to improve.”

Then at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology School Access and Quality Summit early this month, Paymon Rouhanifard presented a major policy address challenging the use of high stakes testing to rank and rate public schools.  Rouhanifard was until very recently Chris Christy’s appointed, school-reformer superintendent in Camden, New Jersey.  Formerly he was the director in New York City of Joel Klein’s Office of Portfolio Management.  Rouhanifard describes the belief system he brought with him to Camden and describes how his five-year tenure as Camden’s superintendent transformed his thinking: “Our belief was that politics and bureaucracy had inhibited the progress Camden students and families deserved to overcome the steep challenges the city was facing…  We believed it was important for the district to segue out of being a highly political monopoly operator of schools….  This is a story about an evolution of my own thinking during that five-year experience…. What I’m referring to are the math and literacy student achievement data we utilize to drive so many of the critical decisions we make… My realization a few years ago was that I rarely asked questions about what these tests actually told us.  What they didn’t tell us.  And perhaps most importantly, what were the specific behaviors they incentivized, and what were the general trade-offs when we acutely focus on how students do on state tests.”

In 2013, at the beginning of his tenure, Rouhanifard introduced a school report card that rated each school primarily by students’ standardized test scores. Two years ago Rouhanifard eliminated his own school report cards.  He describes his realization: “We are spending an inordinate amount of time on formative and interim assessments and test prep, because those are the behaviors we have incentivized.  We are deprioritizing the sciences, the arts, and civic education…. I… believe the drawbacks currently outweigh the benefits.  That we haven’t been honest about the trade-offs.”

Shael Polakow-Suransky, like Rouhanifard, held a position in Joel Klein’s “reformer” school administration in New York City.  Now the president of Bank Street College of Education, he was formerly Klein’s former deputy schools chancellor. Barnum explains that Polakow-Suransky has become an emphatic critic of the nation’s high-stakes standardized testing regime: “The biggest barrier to student learning and closing the achievement gap is the current system of standardized tests.”

In a piece at The74, the  Thomas Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio quotes Polakow-Suransky: “All of us were well-intentioned in pushing this agenda, but the tools we developed were not effective in raising the bar on a wide scale.”

While the Thomas Fordham Institute has endorsed corporate school reform including high-stakes, test-based accountability, Fordham’s Pondiscio now acknowledges that under the Every Student Succeeds Act, U.S. public schools have become mired in an education culture defined by test-based accountability.  Though he seems unclear on the way forward, Pondiscio now advocates for serious reconsideration: “The challenge is not testing vs. not testing.  It’s not accountability vs. none.  Both bring benefits of different kinds, and both are required by a federal law that’s not going to change anytime soon.  The challenge is to develop a policy vision that supports—not thwarts—the classroom practices and long-term student outcomes we seek… The problem is the reductive culture of testing, which has come to shape and define American education, particularly in the kinds of schools attended by our most disadvantaged children.”

There are some who remain faithful to the school reformer dogma. The Center on Reinventing Public Education’s Robin Lake tries to change the subject: “We need a more productive debate about school accountability, not tired arguments over testing.” And Matt Barnum quotes Sandy Kress—still a tried-and-true believer in the No Child Left Behind regime he helped create: “Research shows clearly that accountability made a real difference in this country in narrowing the achievement gap and lifting student achievement.”

Of course, research does not clearly show that Sandy Kress’s kind of No Child Left Behind accountability made a real difference.  Here is Harvard’s Daniel Koretz, in the authoritative book he published a year ago, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better.  It is perhaps this volume by an academic expert on testing that has helped change the minds of some of the corporate school reformers quoted above.  Koretz writes: “It is no exaggeration to say that the costs of test-based accountability have been huge.  Instruction has been corrupted on a broad scale.  Large amounts of instructional time are now siphoned off into test-prep activities that at best waste time and at worst defraud students and their parents.  Cheating has become widespread.  The public has been deceived into thinking that achievement has dramatically improved and that achievement gaps have narrowed.  Many students are subjected to severe stress, not only during testing but also for long periods leading up to it.  Educators have been evaluated in misleading and in some cases utterly absurd ways  Careers have been disrupted and in some cases ended.  Educators, including prominent administrators, have been indicted and even imprisoned.  The primary benefit we received in return for all of this was substantial gains in elementary-school math that don’t persist until graduation.  This is true despite the many variants of test-based accountability the reformers have tried, and there is nothing on the horizon now that suggests that the net effects will be better in the future. On balance, then, the reforms have been a failure.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 191-192)

Introducing readers to Don Campbell, “one of the founders of the science of program evaluation,” Koretz defines the problems inherent in our society’s quarter century of high-stakes, test-and-punish school accountability by quoting Campbell’s Law:  “The more any quantitative social indicator 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 intend to monitor.”  Campbell directly addresses the problem of high stakes testing to rank and rate schools:  “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)

How has the testing regime operated perversely to undermine the schools serving our society’s most vulnerable children—the ones we were told No Child Left Behind would catch up academically if only we created incentives and punishments to motivate their teachers to work harder?  “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools.  The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others.  Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do.  This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’  It was a deliberate and prominent part of may of the test-based accountability reforms… Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic  The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.”  (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Besides imposing unreasonable and damaging punishments on the schools and teachers serving our society’s poorest children, Koretz believes our commitment to a regime of punitive testing has distracted our society from developing the commitment to address the real needs of children and schools in places where poverty is concentrated: “We can undoubtedly reduce variations in performance appreciably, if we summoned the political will and committed the resources to do so—which would require a lot more than simply imposing requirements that educators reach arbitrary targets for test scores.” The Testing Charade, p. 131)