Top Story 5/07/14

Charter Schools in the Cross-hairs — Again

BY PETER MEYER |  For some education reformers, charter schools have become the spear of progress, promising innovation and competition; for others in the education community, they are the unpleasant poke in the eye, a needless draining of public moneys to pay for “privately-operated” schools. And despite a temporary cease-fire in some charter school hostilities (see my Top Story of April 20), controversy came rolling back to the headlines recently – just in time for National Charter Schools Week.

The Waltons

First it was Motoko Rich’s front page New York Times story on the Walton Family Foundation’s funding of education reform, including, as the headline suggested, “spreading charter schools,” a story that was greeted by New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer columnist Jonathon Chait with a blog post titled “What’s Behind the New York Times Insanely Hostile Story on Charter Schools?”  Chait, who admitted that his wife worked for a Washington charter school network (that receives no money from Walton, he said), pulled few punches:

“There are certain times when the pose of objective journalism falls apart completely, and Sunday’s New York Times story about the Walton Family Foundation’s sponsorship of charter schools is one of those times. A straightforwardly left-wing attack on charter schools would be coherent. But since the Times’ news section can’t run an ideological polemic, the argument is instead submerged in the form of insinuations.”

Though it is probably a better subject for a journalism class, Rich’s Times story describes the Walton Foundation as having “subsidized an entire charter school system” in Washington in a 2500-word story,  leaving out mention of the often-heated, often-partisan battles that accompanied charter schools almost from their origins, in Minnesota in 1991, until the tenth paragraph, and omitting mention of the more recent charges by charter critics that they are an attempt by the wealthy to undermine public schools (except in the story headline, “A Walmart Fortune, Spreading Charter Schools), thus giving the story the flavor of a partisan profile.

Camp Philos

As if on cue, a few days later Billy Easton, head of the Alliance for Quality Education, an organization founded to fight for education funding “equity” in New York State, increased the partisanship stakes by calling out Democrats for Education Reform (DFER)  for convening a meeting of the wealthy “to plot and scheme” ways of controlling education. In a post in Gotham Gazette called “Philosophers or Bullies?”  Easton mocked the DFER-sponsored education summit that weekend at Lake Placid, called Camp Philos:

“Real philosophers, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who retreated into those same woods 150 years ago, believed in a well-rounded education system that would be fully funded by the state.

But in our modern day, when it comes to public schools, retreating and relaxing is a privilege that parents, students and teachers in severely underfunded public schools across the state just don’t have….

Camp Philos is really more of a private resort for the wealthy and powerful corporate education reformers—tickets cost a whopping $1,000 each (for VIPs $2,500). It’s a chance to plot and scheme about how to control the direction of education in New York State and the nation; and they just may have the money to do it.”

Easton used the word “corporate” no fewer than six times in his 680-word post, joining what has become a simmering undercurrent of class warfare in the education reform battles.  (Full disclosure, wearing my private citizen hat, I commented critically on the story).  As Rich had done with her story on Walton, suggesting that a corporate powerhouse had “subsidized an entire charter school system,” Easton accused rich VIPs of plotting and scheming to “control” public education.

The essay proved to be a shot over the bow of the Philos elite as it encouraged an on-site protest, according to Politico’s “Morning Education,” led by Weingarten, at the Lake Placid meeting:

“Irate at the idea of wealthy “thought leaders” planning the future of public education without them, about 300 members of the New York State United Teachers union showed up at Whiteface Lodge on Sunday in matching green T-shirts, bearing handmade signs with slogans like “Don’t Sell Our Schools to the Highest Bidder.” The members, plus American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, picketed in a downpour. They got even more fired up when they heard that [Governor Andrew] Cuomo would be addressing the conference by video, not in person — crediting themselves for scaring him away.”

Undaunted by the protests, DFER’s Executive Director Joe Williams told Politico that, “If anything, a lot of people here are used to being the ones out there protesting, so it is fascinating to witness it from the other side. It reinforced the notion, which brought people here in the first place, that there remains a fight over the soul of the Democratic party, and that it is kicking into high gear.”

Biggest News: The Funding Inequity

What the Rich and Easton stories emphasize is the continuing deep-seated differences of opinion about charter schools and the current consensus among charter critics that it was a tale of two cities, the rich against the poor, and the “public” school versus the “private” school.

Such framing made the report issued that week by the University of Arkansas’ School Choice Demonstration Project (SCDP), funded, indeed, by the Walton Foundation, even more significant. Called “Charter School Funding: Inequity Expands,” The SCDP study took on the assumptions and insinuations of charter critics and argued that traditional public schools were in fact funded at much higher rates than were charter schools, including funding by philanthropists.

As Patrick Wolf, head of the SCDP, writes in the report’s Foreword, the report’s five researchers and analysts found that “the average public charter school student in the U.S. is receiving $3,814 less in funding than the average traditional public school student.”  That meant that the average charter school, with 400 students, received $1.5 million less than the average traditional public school.  And, most surprising to those who would accept the “corporate education” label, is the fact that of the four major sources of revenue for public schools – federal categorical aid, state foundational aid, local funding, and private philanthropy – the only category that charters received more money per student was state aid, but just barely:

“It is a myth that funding disparities between districts and charter schools can somehow be explained away by Other revenues [e.g. philanthropy]…. The facts show that charter schools do not consistently receive more Other funding than districts.”

Most surprising, perhaps, is the fact that the funding disparities were the worst in cities – what the researchers call “focus areas” – where there is usually a higher concentration of charters. In those areas, nationwide, traditional district schools receive $4,352 more per pupil than charter schools.

The other surprising finding is that the funding gap between traditional public schools and charters is increasing. Following up on two previous studies that some of this report’s authors helped design, the funding inequity gap has grown from 21.7 percent in 2005 to 28.4 percent today.  Despite the fact that enrollment in public charters has increased in every state and Washington, D.C., since fiscal year 2003 and that enrollment in district schools has decreased in 16 of the 24 states included in the current study, district schools received $3,509 more per pupil than charter schools during this period.  Conclude the authors of the report:

“If, in aggregate, districts in the 30 states and D.C.received the same level of per pupil funding as charter schools in FY11, they would have received $110,860,725,324 less in total revenues.”

There are limitations to this report – “it cannot tell us in all cases,” write the authors, “exactly why local governments provide students in public charter schools with so much less money” – and a closer reading of the study by trained analysts is certainly in order, to see how deep the analysis goes within the charter sector – are charters spending their money differently than traditional schools, for instance? – but this report should give other researchers an important push to ask further important questions about charters and their contributions to American public education.

Do Charters Work?

In fact, SCDP promises to have information about “how well the money is spent” by charters and traditional schools by the end of the month. But we don’t have to wait. There is ample evidence from other sources about “return-on-investment”; notably, from the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford, which has been studying reform outcomes for nearly 15 years.  According to a March report in the Wall Street Journal,

“The first major assessment of charter schools by Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes found their results to be extremely variable, and overall no better than conventional schools as of 2009. Its follow-up study several years later found that steady closures and their replacement by proven models had pushed charters ahead of conventional schools. In New York City, the average charter-school student now absorbs five months of extra learning a year in math, and one extra month in reading, compared with counterparts in conventional schools.”

A more recent CREDO study, according to a Bloomberg News story from 2013, concluded that

“The average student at a charter — a privately run public school — learned eight more days of reading a year than a pupil in a regular school, according to the Stanford University study. In both subjects, poor students, black children and those who speak English as a second language fared better in charters.”

Charters Seem to be Here to Stay

It is still too early to conclude that charters are the nation’s future public education model, but as Marc Sternberg, director of K-12 educatioin reform at Walton, asked the Times as a response to the critics, “What’s the argument there? Don’t help anybody until you can help everybody?”

Arguably, and despite the new “us-and-them” cast to some of the recent criticism, Charter Schools would seem to have turned a crucial corner as an education idea. The House Education and Workforce Committee recognized National Charter Schools Week by issuing an “infographic” with “charter facts” reporting that there are now 2,280,627 students enrolled in 6,004 charter schools, a 225 percent increase in the number of students and a 118 percent increase in the number of schools in the last ten years.  The committee infographic also reports that 80 percent of charters have waiting lists and that altogether there are more than a million students on such lists.

These waiting lists have become the charter system’s most notable raison d’être, a simple sign of popularity. According to an Education Week story, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) reports that the waiting lists grew 13 percent in just the last year.  Even when duplicate names were removed, the numbers were impressive: 586,511, up from 523,335 a year earlier.  Though these numbers have been challenged, it seems clear that, as NAPCS president Nina Rees told Ed Week:

“There is huge demand for high-quality public school options out there…. [T]he fact that families are putting their names on multiple lists and trying to get the kids out of the schools they are in, tell us we have a lot of work to do to both increase the access to more high-quality public charter schools, to create more seats, but also to work with the school system to make sure that the quality of the traditional public school system also improves over the years.”

Not surprisingly, there is a new report out from the National Education Policy Center, a consistent skeptic of school reform initiatives, called “Wait, Wait. Don’t Mislead Me! Nine Reasons to be Skeptical about Charter Waitlist Numbers.”

The fight goes on.

But the momentum seems to favor charters.  Their numbers are growing. And despite a bitterly divided Congress on most issues, the House education committee noted that “Republicans and Democrats have joined together to advance The Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10),” a bill which is about to introduced in the House, promising, as the infographic notes, to promote “state efforts to develop and expand charter schools” and support “the sharing of best practices between charters and traditional public schools.”  (For more information on H.R. 10, visit

Indeed, as they enter their second decade, their numbers growing, charter schools have changed the education landscape and the tenor of the school improvement debate – and appear to be here to stay.




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