The charter school movement is in trouble. In late December, the editorial board of the Chicago Sun-Times observed that the charter movement in the Windy City was “in hot water and likely to get hotter.” Among more than a dozen aspirants for mayor, “only a handful” expressed any support for charter schools, and the last two standing for the April 2 runoff election both said they wanted to halt charter school expansion. In February, New York City’s elected parent representatives — the Community and Citywide Education Councils — issued a unanimous statement in which they criticized charters for operating “free from public oversight” and for draining “substantial” resources from district schools. A month later, Mayor Bill de Blasio told a parent forum that in the “not-too-distant future” his administration would seek to curtail the marketing efforts of the city’s charters, which currently rely on New York City Department of Education mailing lists.
After a six-day strike in January, Los Angeles teachers forced the city’s Board of Education to seek a state moratorium on new L.A. charters, an outcome that reverberated across California and then repeated itself in Oakland. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who previously said he supported charters, responded by appointing a task force to investigate their financial impact on traditional public schools. Now the state legislature is advancing bills that would cap charter school growth and limit where they can open. Meanwhile, on the national level, Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren call the schools a problem.
The vanguard of this unrest is organized teachers, political progressives and public education activists. Yet public opinion, even if it is moving more slowly, is tilting in the same direction. According to the school-choice-favoring EdNext Poll, support for charters slipped noticeably in 2017. Though it rebounded a bit in 2018, it did so mainly among Republicans, with “only 36 percent of Democrats now supporting their formation” — a phenomenon likely due to the polarizing influence of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The most recent polling on charters in Los Angeles County found that 75 percent of residents favor “improving the existing public schools” over pursuing “additional charter school options.”
This is no small shift. For the past quarter-century, the charter school movement has been a juggernaut. Charters were originally devised by technocrats hoping to inject “free market dogmas into the public sector,” as Rachel Cohen wrote in the journal Democracy. The idea was expertly packaged and sold for a broad audience — as a low-cost way to advance the twin aims of excellence and equity. Buoyed by philanthropic financial backing and a bipartisan political consensus, charters grew rapidly in number and won significant public acceptance. Even in the face of severe criticism, chiefly about the threat of privatization, they seemed unstoppable.
But much of the movement’s potency was a product of promises, rather than results. Supporters praised charters of the present and pointed optimistically at the school system yet to come. As Tom Vander Ark of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation put it in 2003, charter schools offered young people “hope for the future.” In 2016, there were 3 million students in 7,000 of these programs.
Today, however, the grand promises of the charter movement remain unfulfilled, and so the costs of charters are being evaluated in a new light. For the first time in two decades, even as the number of charter-bound children rises (the schools will educate between 20 and 40 percent of American students by 2035, according to one projection), the opposition is gathering momentum.
The first big promise of the charter movement was, in the words of Barack Obama, that these schools would be “incubators of innovation.” Unlike traditional public schools, long criticized for their dreary sameness, charters would foster the kind of creative dynamism seen in other competitive markets. Free from bureaucratic governance, these “laboratories of innovation” would generate “fresh new ideas” and “inspire lasting change.” New curriculums and pedagogies, theoretically, could better educate our children.
The second promise, as George W. Bush put it, was that charters would give “families with children stuck in failing schools the right to choose someplace better.” In a competitive marketplace, families would no longer be trapped inside the “public school monopoly.” Instead, they would have the freedom to select from a range of options. As Fred Hiatt of The Washington Post wrote, they would be “treated as valued customers.”
The third promise was that charters would foster competition among schools in a manner that would lead to systemwide improvement. In an education marketplace, bad schools wouldn’t need to be shut down by the government; they would simply go out of business. Good schools, meanwhile, would expand through what the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and others have called “replication.” Like successful fast-food franchises, successful models would be reproduced to meet demand.
To be clear, many charters have developed innovative practices: reimagining the school schedule, using small group instruction, creating stronger mentoring relationships between teachers and students. Additionally, millions of parents have been empowered to choose new schools for their children. Parents generally favor strong neighborhood schools, but in districts with outdated student assignment policies, low levels of equity or demonstrated inadequacy, many parents have seen school choice as a blessing. Some charter networks, like KIPP, have had success expanding across multiple locations.
On the whole, however, charters have failed to live up to their promises.
Consider, for instance, the lack of innovation in the charter sector. According to a recent report by the IBM Center for the Business of Government, for instance, charter schools tend toward a particular set of practices: longer school days, comprehensive behavioral policies (governing how students dress, when they can speak and where they can move, enforced by a range of punishments) and a focus on academic achievement. That’s because charter renewals are generally conditioned on students’ standardized-test scores. Consequently, the report concludes, “there appears to be less innovation than originally anticipated.” A report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education concluded that charter school innovation has often been in areas like “new uses of funding and governance,” rather than in instructional designs.
Charters have also failed to live up to the hype of freeing families from “bad schools.” In large part, that is because the introduction of charters simply creates an opportunity for choice; it does not ensure the quality of schools. Rigorous research, from groups like Mathematica Policy Research and Stanford University, has found that average charter performance is roughly equivalent to that of traditional public schools. A recent study in Ohio, for instance, concluded that some of the state’s charters perform worse than the state’s public schools, some perform better, and roughly half do not significantly differ. On top of this, families have faced challenges in navigating a marketplace of choices. School quality is notoriously difficult to gauge and is highly dependent on the fit between a child and a school. Consequently, families are often vulnerable to marketing; charter networks can spend millions of dollars on advertising campaigns. On top of all this, even if parents had perfect information about where the “good schools” are, they would still face unequal access to transportation.
Finally, charters have not produced the systemic improvement promised by their boosters. Theoretically, the introduction of charters and choice would force all schools to get better to maintain enrollment. But schools can attract students for reasons other than superior quality, and the obsession with securing per-pupil funding has in many cases been a distraction from the work of educating students. As a senior official for the pro-charter Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce recently observed: “We’ve turned education into a commodity — if that kid walks across the street, you’re chasing after him for the money attached to his seat. That’s ridiculous if you think about the long term.”
Meanwhile, as the big promises about charters have remained unfulfilled, real costs have been accruing. According to school finance expert Bruce Baker, the expansion of charters has weakened traditional public schools and created inefficiencies like duplicative administrative costs. Increased competition has led to many schools, charter and otherwise, closing down — an outcome that Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University has called “very damaging to kids.” And in places like New Orleans, where traditional public schools have been almost entirely replaced by charters, residents have expressed frustration with unelected and unrepresentative governing boards that routinely violate state transparency laws.
In light of these shortcomings, the long-running consensus that has sustained the charter movement has begun to unravel. That isn’t because charter schools have suddenly gotten worse. If anything, leaders in the sector have learned something over the past 25 years, and standardized scores have improved over time. Instead, it’s because the promised future has failed to materialize.