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Time for a moratorium on charter schools

Charters have failed to deliver, and their expansion should be put on hold

April 14, 2015 2:00AM ET

Charter schools are everywhere. Not long ago, these publicly funded but privately run institutions were a relative rarity. Those that existed served mostly as experimental academies whose successful lessons could be applied elsewhere in their host school districts. But in the last 15 years, swaths of the U.S. public education system have been turned over to charters. In fact, they are being used as a means to crush teachers’ unions and to pursue high-stakes testing.

Charter advocates justify this ascent by promising an antidote to the disappointing outcomes of traditional public schools in segregated and underfunded urban districts. But the research is in: Charter schools have failed to deliver on their promises.

It is time lawmakers freeze their growth and consider how to provide the best education possible for all students.

Underwhelming performance

There are recent precedents for a moratorium on charter schools. Philadelphia, which issued dozens of charter licenses before 2008, did not allow any new ones from 2008 to 2015. The Chicago School District declared a freeze on charters for the 2015–16 school year. Connecticut and Delaware are considering similar actions. Other school boards and states should follow suit.

As a bevy of recent studies prove, charter schools are not substantially outperforming neighborhood public schools. In Arizona, for example, “on average, charter schools in Arizona do no better, and sometimes worse, than the traditional public schools” according to a study by the Brookings Institution. A similar study in Ohio showed that public schools were producing better results than their charter peers in most parts of the state. In Illinois the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity found that Chicago’s charter schools are “less likely to be racially or ethnically diverse” than and “consistently underperform” their public school peers.

That charter schools are not doing better than traditional public schools is particularly disturbing, since they have a host of advantages. Notably, many charters cherry-pick their students. A 2013 study by Reuters found that charter schools employ complicated screening mechanisms to admit only students who are most likely to succeed. This ensures that students from deeply impoverished families or households where English is not spoken at home are less likely to gain admission. These methods include using English-only documents, demanding proof of citizenship (which is illegal) and narrowing application windows to a few hours.

Charters also regulate the composition of their student bodies through expulsions. In 2014 the Chicago School District reported that public schools expelled 182 students out of 353,000. By contrast, charter schools booted 307 students out of 50,000. The expelled students end up back in the public schools, which become the institution of last resort. Charter schools should in theory register superior test scores, since they are not serving some of the highest-need students. Yet that has not been the case on the whole.

Charters have fallen short in terms of transparency and accountability too. A 2010 review from the Philadelphia controller’s office found that the city’s charter schools had little oversight from the understaffed and underfunded school district. Numerous charter operators have been charged with corruption and misuse of funds.

A national moratorium on charter schools would stop the hemorrhaging of funds from traditional public schools.

A 2014 report by two anti-education-privatization organizations, the Center for Popular Democracy and Integrity in Education, found $136 million in fraud and abuse in 15 states. A follow-up study (PDF) in Pennsylvania revealed “charter school officials have defrauded at least $30 million intended for Pennsylvania schoolchildren since 1997.” Some of the questionable dealings may not be illegal because of the intricacies of state laws, but there is little doubt that public money is being wasted.

A recent review of charter school scandals in Florida and Michigan by The Washington Post listed numerous cases of real estate flipping, in which charter schools were used as vehicles for exorbitant profits. Michigan’s largest charter operator, National Heritage Academies gets a 16 percent return on its investment in rent from the state — nearly twice what most commercial properties receive.

A nationwide moratorium

Chicago and Philadelphia provide good examples for setting moratoriums on charter schools, but the freeze has been limited in both cities. Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission did not approve a new charter school in the last seven years. But the number of students enrolled at the existing charters continued to grow, doubling from 2007 to 2015. This year the commission approved five new charters — a regrettable reversal of the moratorium.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has declared that no new charter schools will be funded during the 2015–16 year. However, there is good reason to believe that he is simply playing politics and that he will not extend the moratorium. He faced a tough re-election battle, and the temporary halt was seen as an attempt to lure supporters of public education back into his camp. His poll numbers plunged in 2013 when he closed 50 neighborhood public schools, mostly in black and Hispanic neighborhoods that turned out for him in the 2011 election. His attempts to use the moratorium to appeal to disaffected voters shows that black and Latino parents, whom advocates of the charter industry insist want more charter schools, are hardly as enamored with charters as previously thought.

Nationwide, the expansion of charter schools continues unabated. Charter advocates report that 500 new charter schools opened during the 2014–15 school year, enrolling 348,000 students. One in 20 American students is enrolled in a charter school.

It is time for this to stop.

Charter advocates claim that they are data-driven technicians who pay attention to evidence of what works. But research does not support their preferred education policies. A national moratorium on charter schools would stop the hemorrhaging of funds from traditional public schools. It would also allow time to address the corruption that has plagued the charter industry. This would create an opportunity for some reflection on what actually works best for educating our children. 

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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