Are Charter Schools Good for the Future of Education?

By: Peter Segall

01/28/2019

Last week, roughly 30,000 Los Angeles teachers returned to the classroom after a six-day strike, the district’s first in 30 years. Disputes between the United Teachers Los Angeles union and the LA school district had arisen over pay, class size, and school services such as nurses and counselors.

But union leaders were also demanding a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools in Los Angeles, the growth of which they say puts extra stress on the resources available to schools, and even threatens the very notion of public education itself.

The debate over charter schools has percolated across the country, and found a new champion in President Trump, whose education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has long been an advocate in Detroit and throughout the state of Michigan. Supporters of charter schools say that these schools offer a better alternative to traditional public education by loosening regulatory rules and allowing individual schools to innovate on their own terms. Opponents say they drain money from the students that remain in traditional schools, while turning over taxpayer dollars to unaccountable private companies.

First, what exactly are charter schools? Charter schools are tuition-free, independently-run schools, but financed with public money. According to EdWeek, charter schools are exempted from conventional regulations regarding public schools through a contract with a public body, such as a city, state, or university. In exchange for those exemptions charters are required to fulfill the terms of their contracts, which explicitly enumerate academic goals and accountability. If the school fails to adhere to the contract, they are shut down. This allows schools to set their own agendas, hire and fire staff more easily, and provide a more nimble approach to serving their communities, all while under intense pressure to perform.

Opponents however argue that while these schools claim to be more accountable than traditional public schools, they are in fact controlled by private companies not subject to the same rules of transparency. Furthermore, they drain resources from neighborhood schools and are given an unfair advantage, as they can be more selective in the students they accept.

Charter school advocates point to the city of New Orleans, which in the wake of Hurricane Katrina transferred all its public schools over to private administration. There, students have improved across a number of areas, according to a comprehensive study written by Douglas Harris and Matthew Larsen and produced by Tulane University.

While students have improved, the authors of the study take pains to point out that there were a number of factors that contributed to the gains made in New Orleans, not all of which can be directly attributable to charter schools taking over the district. They also stress that they are not convinced that the New Orleans model can be moved to other cities. They note, that the conditions in the city following the hurricane created the perfect environment for charters to flourish.

You can read Harris and Larsen’s study here.

You can also read a rebuttal of the study by Bruce Baker of Rutgers University here.

We’d like to hear from you! What’s your experience been with charter schools? How have they affected your community? Let us know at mpc@mediapolicycenter.org

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