by Karen R. Effrem, MD
About a year ago, I wrote about the stunningly precipitous (but deserved) 13-percentage point drop in support for charter schools nationwide. Although these alternative public schools have gained back a modest 5 percentage points this year, other concerning data is coming out showing that charter schools, especially the corporate chain model, are not particularly effective in helping struggling students or turning around poorly performing public schools in neighborhoods where many other factors are in play.
Just yesterday, the non-partisan government watchdog group Integrity Florida released a report about charter schools. The report contains a long list of very significant findings, but here are several that should especially concern all parents and taxpayers, regardless of political ideology:
Integrity Florida noted, “Although many charter schools in Florida are high performing, research has found no significant difference in academic performance between charter schools and traditional public schools.”
One study described as an “outlier” by Integrity Florida was the Florida Department of Education study, which found that charter schools were superior to traditional public schools (TPSs) in 86 out of 195 areas studied. However, several other studies examined, including one from the heavily establishment, pro-school choice Fordham and Walton Foundations, found no difference between charters and TPSs:
The charter track record is, in a word, mixed. Some of the country’s highest achieving schools are charters, but so are some of the worst. One can average it out and conclude that charter schools are producing results that resemble the district schools to which they offer alternatives.
The Integrity Florida report also quoted numerous other studies showing charters to be inferior to public schools:
Integrity Florida also found several studies showing for-profit charters were the worst at academic performance of all types of charters, including this one:
Of large educational management organizations, three for-profit management companies operating in Florida were cited in a 2012 study as having among the lowest percentage of schools attaining adequate yearly progress required under federal legislation – Charter Schools USA (10 percent), Academica (29 percent) and K-12, Inc. (33 percent).
All of this data correlates with evidence from other states. The Dallas Morning News recently released a review of charter schools in the area based on the new Texas A-F grading scale. The article reported:
The Texas Education Agency said nearly 37 percent of charter districts across the state earned an ‘A’ compared to about 16 percent of traditional school districts that received the highest rating. But such charter districts also had a larger share of ‘F’ grades, 8 percent compared to only 1.2 in traditional districts.
The reported charter academic quality data from Integrity Florida also correlates with another of their key findings:
Charter schools have largely failed to deliver the education innovation that was originally promised and envisioned.
The Integrity Florida report goes on to say:
The scarcity of innovations occurs because “most charters do not employ particularly innovative instructional approaches” and “most high-performing charter schools utilize traditional curriculum and pedagogy.”
Although not mentioned in the report, the “traditional curriculum and pedagogy” used by almost all Florida charter schools are the federally mandated statewide standards either called Common Core or rebranded something else to avoid parent fury. This should not be confused with the classical curriculum used in some charters in Florida and around the nation, such as in the Hillsdale classical charter schools that are able to teach around the Common Core curriculum and tests. These classical schools are sadly the exception instead of the rule.
While charters “strain traditional schools and school districts financially,” they are also quite financially unstable. According to Integrity Florida, “Since 1998, at least 373 charter schools have closed their doors in Florida.” According to the Miami Herald, this has cost Florida taxpayers at least $70 million through 2015, very little of which was recovered. The report also noted that lax regulation of charter schools has created opportunities for financial mismanagement and criminal corruption
This financial instability, lack of innovation, poor academic performance, and lax regulation appear especially unfortunate and unseemly given that charter school corporations have spent $21 million contributing to political campaigns and lobbying the Florida legislature. In addition, as noted in the Integrity Florida report:
Some public officials who decide education policy and their families are profiting personally from ownership and employment with the charter school industry, creating the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The report specifically identifies outgoing Florida Speaker Richard Corcoran and multiple current or former committee chairmen whose advocacy for charter school bills was quite unseemly given their direct or family connections to charter schools or companies.
Finally, another extremely important consequence of charter school expansion in Florida and across the country is loss of local control. School boards are losing their ability to regulate what happens in their own districts, while funding is being taken away from districts in favor of charter schools, especially hurting low-income districts with higher proportions of struggling students — the ones that charter schools were envisioned and marketed to help. As frustrating as fighting local school boards may sometimes be, at least citizens can vote problematic members out. With corporate charters, the boards may not be in the same state or even country as the schools they control (see, for example, the controversial Turkish Gulen Harmony Schools).
As also discussed here and here, there are a number of reasons that all parents and citizens, including conservatives, should be wary of establishment corporate charter school expansion. These include the Common Core connection, lack of effectiveness, history of financial mismanagement, lack of accountability and transparency, potential for corporate cronyism, and foreign influence. As voters consider what issues to bring up with candidates for the upcoming midterm elections, this is another important one to add to the list.