It's been 25 years since Minnesota launched the charter school movement in June of 1991, and after years of steady growth, charters are now a controversial but fixed piece of America's educational landscape, according to a group of experts gathered at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., recently to mark the upcoming anniversary of the first charter law.
The charter movement as a whole got mixed grades from the group, which included recently retired Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The experts differed on the core purpose of the charter movement and on how well the schools are serving the needs of the communities they serve.
Charters, independent public schools that enjoy autonomy in hiring and curriculum traditional district schools lack, now educate 6 percent of American children. That may seem small, but in 2000, charters claimed just .07 percent of the students.
Today, over 2.5 million kids attend charters, and in some urban centers their influence is enormous. In New Orleans, 93 percent of students attend charters. Detroit comes second at 55 percent, then Washington, D.C., at 44, Philadelphia at 30 and both Los Angeles and Houston at 21.
Innovation and choice
Charters were originally conceived as laboratories for innovation, according to Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Century Foundation at the Brookings event. Those innovations were then supposed to transfer to district schools, through collaboration or competition, Kahlenberg said.
Most experts at the forum agreed that the innovations have not been all that radical. In fact, many of the most prominent charter networks have emphasized discipline and "back to basics," more a return to the past than a leap to the future.
The greatest innovation of many urban charter schools is academic rigor and high expectations, argued Duncan, who served for seven years as President Obama's secretary of education and is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Charter schools, Duncan said, serve children “not born to middle class families. And for them six hours a day isn't enough. If you are starting life behind, then you need more help, more resources, more opportunities."
It's difficult to innovate on curriculum when everything is driven by test scores, said Jon Valant, a post-doctoral fellow in economics at Tulane University in New Orleans. "There are only so many ways to make test scores go up," Valant said, "and this has limited classroom innovation (in charters)."
Charters do function much like traditional public schools, said Robin Lake, director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a pro-charter think tank based at the University of Washington, but charters have been quicker to adopt innovations in areas such as personalized learning and classroom technology.
"You see a cleaner experimentation in charter schools. They take on an idea and test it, and it doesn't work, something happens," Lake said. "In district schools, it's just harder to get everyone on the same page, to work through all the different layers."
Lake said CRPE has an active program working with the Gates Foundation to enhance collaboration between charters and district schools, but that a "war mentality," with traditional schools feeling under assault, still hampers relations between the two sectors.
But the real purpose of charters is not to spur innovation or create competition with district schools, Duncan insisted, but rather to enable parental choice. Every child learns differently, Duncan said, and even children within the same family might need different approaches. "If we could have at least one good choice," he said, "and ideally three or four good choices, that would be a good thing."
"Not every school has to have the same purpose," said Douglas Harris, a professor of economics at Tulane University.
Race and empowerment
Inevitably, conversations on charters come back to racial equity and socioeconomic opportunity, given the disproportion of urban, poor and minority children they serve.
In addition to being heavily urban, charter schools serve more low-income students than traditional schools (46 percent versus 41 percent) and more African-American students (27 percent versus 15 percent), according to data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Charter schools have, Fuller argues, exposed the lie that you cannot educate poor children. But he argues they have yet to fully engage the poor and minority families they disproportionately serve.
"The one thing that concerns me about charter movement is that it's the only social movement where the people most impacted don't lead it," said Howard Fuller, the former superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools and a professor at Marquette University.
"If you look at the largest charter management organizations and the advocacy organizations, they are all run by white people," Fuller said, speaking as the lone African-American on the day's panels, and one of the few in the room. "We have to see that, and we have to see it as a problem."
Fuller drew a distinction between engagement and empowerment. "Empowerment is when you decide to build a bridge," he said. "Engagement is when they ask you what color you want it."
Acknowledging Fuller's challenge, Rees said her organization is working on reaching out to the 2 million graduates from charter schools to expand leadership in poor and minority communities. "They have the greatest opportunity to lead here," she said.
The participants also addressed concerns over equity and access, responding to the common charge that charters engage in "cream skimming," or taking the students only from the most motivated families, leaving those with behavioral or learning challenges to the district schools.
Charters have been accused of “counseling out” students who present either discipline or learning challenges, urging parents to take them elsewhere. The CRPE's Lake said that there is a fine line between “counseling out” and the popular “no excuses” charter schools, which makes a safe, disciplined school culture central to their mission.
The “no excuses” schools, Lake said, necessarily entail that particularly unruly students might not stick around. Many charter schools struggle to maintain "mission coherence" and discipline — without filtering out tougher students. "They are struggling to figure out how to do that fairly," Lake said.
"All charters and magnet schools cream skim, if only because they take the most motivated families," argued Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. Kahlenberg has long argued that all students benefit from more diversity in the student body.
Parental self selection is one thing, but consciously pushing out students who require special attention is quite another. The conscious cream skimming issue gained national attention earlier this year when one of the Success Academy charter schools in New York was called out for keeping a "got to go" list of students who needed to be forced out. That incident reinforced longstanding suspicions that charters commonly "counsel out" challenging students, argued Douglas Harris, "and that was really damaging to the charter movement."
"We can disagree on what public education ought to be," Harris said, "but I think we can all agree that every school should be welcoming to students."