No Justification for the Existence of Charter Schools

One of the main claims to fame of privately-operated non-profit and for-profit charter schools is that they will deliver bigger and better results than public schools in exchange for greater flexibility and autonomy to operate than public schools.

Two recent reports, however, build on extensive previous research which shows that academic performance in privately operated charter schools, which have been around nearly 30 years, is weak or no better than academic performance in public schools.

Charter schools, which annually siphon billions of dollars from public schools and are often rife with corruption, have not delivered on the big promises they have made for decades.

First Report

New Mexico passed legislation enabling the creation of privately-operated charter schools more than 20 years ago. Currently, the state has about 25,000 students enrolled in approximately 100 charter schools.

In September 2019, the neoliberal pro-charter school Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University published a detailed report showing that academic performance in privately-operated charter schools in New Mexico is similar to academic performance in public schools.  Putting aside the punitive and unsound character of high-stakes standardized tests used in the U.S., CREDO states that:

The findings from our analyses show that in a year’s  time, the typical charter school  student  in New Mexico makes similar progress in both reading and math compared to the educational gains that the student would have made in a traditional public school. This result represents an improvement in the charter sector compared to earlier periods in which the performance of charter school students lagged behind that of their TPS  peers. Further probing reveals that the aggregate  results  are  strongly influenced by the performance of online charter school students. Enrollment in online charter schools is associated with substantially weaker learning gains in both reading and math and that the inferior performance of online charter schools offsets the positive impact of brick-and-mortar charter schools on student growth in reading. The learning   gains of charter school students in various subgroups are comparable to the gains of their TPS peers in the same subgroup. (p. 2, emphasis added)

In other words, charter schools in New Mexico have been performing worse than public schools for many years, and they are only now beginning to perform similarly. Further, cyber charter school performance remains abysmal.

From the perspective of a parent concerned about academic performance, it appears that charter schools may not be a better option than public schools, especially when considering that charter schools also have higher teacher turnover rates than public schools and tend to be more segregated and less accountable than public schools.

Second Report

A major 100-page report released this month by the National Center for Education Statistics, School Choice in the United States: 2019, found no measurable differences between the performance of charter schools and public schools on national reading and math assessments from 2017. This finding persists even when parents’ educational attainment were factored into the results. The report states:

Academic Performance: In 2017, at grades 4 and 8, no measurable differences in average reading and mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were observed between students in traditional public and public charter schools (Indicator 6). (p. ix)

It is worth recalling that back in 2009, 10 years earlier, CREDO found that most charter schools in the U.S. perform the same or worse than public schools. Today, across America, thousands of privately-operated nonprofit and for-profit charter schools perform poorly. They have never been the silver bullet charter school advocates have claimed they are.

While there is no justification for the existence of charter schools in New Mexico, there is really no justification for the existence, let alone expansion, of charter schools in the country as a whole. Why create and multiply charter schools when they perform about the same or, as is often the case, worse than public schools? This question is even more pertinent when considering that charter schools are more segregated, more corrupt, more deunionized, and less transparent than public schools.

Privately-operated non-profit and for-profit charter schools have been great for owners of capital and their retinue, but bad for so many parents, students, teachers, and principals.

The challenge confronting the society as a whole is how to ensure that the country has fully-funded, publicly-governed, world-class, integrated public schools in every neighborhood. Treating education as a commodity and parents and students as consumers is not the way forward. A modern society based on mass industrial production cannot operate and develop well on such a basis. Closing all charter schools will help improve education, society, the economy, and the national interest in many ways.

Shawgi Tell is author of the book Charter School Report Card. He can be reached at Read other articles by Shawgi.