Part of an occasional series on charter schools.
Academic research on the performance of charter schools is mixed. Most research indicates that students in charter schools, on average, perform about the same as students in traditional public schools.
In 2015, though, Stanford’s Center for Education Outcomes said an analysis of charter schools in urban areas revealed that they provided “significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading” than their traditional public school peers.
However, other education researchers have said the oft-cited study has notable limitations. For example, the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado said the study uses “problematic” metrics and that the variables it uses “may not be sufficient to support causal conclusions.”
Kentucky’s state legislature likely will adopt some form of charter school legislation this year. Charter schools are publicly financed but privately run schools that are given greater flexibility for areas including curriculum and length of school day and school year to better cater to student needs. Proponents say the schools give parents a better opportunity to remove their children from underperforming schools. Critics say they merely take away valuable resources from traditional public schools without generating any benefit.
Katrina Bulkley, professor of educational leadership at Montclair State University, cautions against over-interpretation of the Stanford study’s findings. Bulkley, who studies market-based education forms, said the Stanford study’s summary indicates, for example, that while two-thirds of urban charters saw greater gains than their traditional public school peers, one-third of the charter schools fared worse.
State Rep. Phil Moffett, R-Louisville, who has authored a bill that would allow the state to authorize charter schools, acknowledged that bad charter schools exist. “Poorly designed charter school laws produce poorly performing charter schools,” he said.
However, he said that Kentucky, as one of the last states to allow charter schools, can learn from other states’ mistakes and increase the likelihood that Kentucky’s charter schools provide better education.
Charter schools should be fully funded and allowed statewide, not just in some isolated areas, Moffett said. Charter school operators should be given flexibility and be allowed to lengthen the school day and/or year and change the curriculum at any time for what best suits the students.
Schools also must be held accountable, Moffett said, and all students still have to take the same tests that traditional public school students have to take. Charter schools also will have to publish their results, and the public will be able to attend board meetings and obtain records. If operators cannot agree to those conditions, Moffett said, they won’t get a charter.
“If we don’t hold them accountable, they will just be another form of failing school,” he said.
However, Louisville parent Gay Adelmann and Jefferson County Public Schools Board President Chris Brady said that charter schools add levels of bureaucracy and murkiness because some of the entities that can authorize charters — like the state board of education and boards of universities — might be unelected officials who have less of an incentive than elected officials to talk to stakeholders. And charter school operators may not even be based in Kentucky, Brady said.
Adelmann and Brady also said academic performance comparisons between traditional public schools and charter schools are flawed, because public schools have to take every student who comes through their doors — unlike charter schools, where a selection process and other mechanics reduce the number of at-risk and special-needs students, those with uninvolved parents and those whose parents do not have the time or means to help their children apply for a charter school spot.
In other states, Brady said, charter school operators also artificially inflate their test scores by “counseling” underperforming students that it might be best for them to return to the traditional public school. Some charter schools also have closed within weeks, leaving children, parents and traditional public schools to scramble to place the students back into classrooms — without the funds that went to the charter operator.
Bulkley said that some charters start with 60 kids in 6th grade, but graduate only 30, because they do not replace the students who don’t succeed. Requiring charters to “backfill” their open spots and to save some open spots for students who enroll late in the school year — because they struggle academically or move into the area — are critical to preventing charter schools from cherry-picking the highest academic performers, she said.
Adelmann said that public schools already are struggling to fund education, with many still receiving fewer dollars than before the recession, which has meant no raises for teachers, no dollars for textbooks and deferred maintenance on buildings. Some local schools lack current textbooks — if they have textbooks at all, she said.
It makes little sense to make those shortfalls even worse, Adelmann added.
“We’re getting on a lifeboat and abandoning the ship,” she said.
The Kentucky Center for Economic Policy supports her assessment. In a recent blog post, the organization wrote: “Research shows charter schools often have negative fiscal impacts on traditional public school districts in large part because it is not possible for them to reduce costs on a student-by-student basis.”
Brady said that when a public school with 25 students in a classroom loses three of those students to a charter school, its fixed costs remain the same. The teacher still has to be paid, and expenses for electricity, and heating/cooling and maintenance remain. But that school still would lose about $40,000 in funding.
Moffett said that under his plan, the charter operators would have to present a five-year plan outlining how they expect to improve student performance. If they miss benchmarks, the authorizer can withdraw the charter. If an authorizer allows too many poorly functioning schools, the state board of education can shut down the authorizer.
“We are trying as hard as we can,” he said, “to keep anyone from trying to game the system.”