Some 15 of NEWSWEEK’s top 100 public high schools are charter schools. Since charter schools amount to only about 4 percent of all public schools, that would seem to suggest that charter schools are a runaway success story, right?
Well, sort of. For the past two decades, charter schools have been touted as a way of improving public schools—a nonbureaucratic, innovative alternative designed to test new ideas that all schools could benefit from. Charter schools are generally (though not always) nonunion schools, freer to hire and fire teachers. The experimentation they’ve fostered has produced some of the best schools in the country.
So it came as a bit of a shock to the community of educational reformers last year when a study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes (CREDO) found that 37 percent of charter schools produce academic results that are worse than public schools, while only 17 percent perform significantly better. Earlier studies sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers’ union, had produced similar results, but they were suspect, since unions stood to lose from the charter-school movement. CREDO, on the other hand, is part of the Hoover Institution, known for favoring free-market solutions. “The perception that charters are per se better than other public schools has been belied by the facts,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT.
What happened? In a nutshell, educators have been better at starting charter schools than at shutting bad ones. In theory, charter schools are laboratories where educational ideas are tested. If a charter school is failing after three to five years, it is supposed to be closed down, freeing up a slot for another educational entrepreneur. Too often, however, it hasn’t worked out that way. The parents at charter schools are often unaware that the school’s performance lags behind. Some schools stress strengthening a child’s self-esteem or cultural identity and don’t worry about those pesky test scores. “I’ve seen parents fight tooth and nail to keep a failing school open because they thought it was safer than other options,” says Andrew Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners, a national reform group. “To them, it’s a rational choice.” Public officials forced to vote on closing schools in front of a room full of crying children and mothers are tempted to say, “Let’s give them more time,” particularly if there are no good alternatives.
Generally speaking, in states and cities where the bar is set high for both entry and performance (Boston, New York, D.C., Chicago), charter schools do well. In states that started with the loosest oversight (Arizona, Florida, California, Ohio, and Texas), there’s much more of a mixed bag. President Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, has made a priority of opening new charters in the $4 billion Race to the Top competition for federal funding. States get points if they remove caps on the number of charter schools. Getting a lot less attention is the fact that states get credit for improving charter quality and shutting down bad schools. Maybe they should get extra credit.