Last month, 17 young men and women began their final year at Success Academy Charter Schools, the largest of the many stunningly successful charter networks operating in New York City. The first ever seniors at Success, these students have gained a lot of peers during their eleven years of study — both within their own school network and at charter schools around the country. Since 2006 the number of American students in charter schools has more than tripled, rising to an estimated 3 million for the 2016–17 school year.
It’s no shock that the rise of charter schools has spurred nationwide opposition from teachers’ unions, which are losing their vise grip on salary and benefits negotiations as independently managed schools spread. It is alarming, however, that the campaign against charters may be starting to gain ground. A poll released last Friday by the nonpartisan journal Education Next shows that public support for charter schools has declined by more than 10 percentage points just in the past year, with the rising doubts spread evenly across party lines.
There are many possible explanations for the increasingly negative perception of charters among the American public. But school-reform advocates should take the news as an urgent call to rebut the slander being heaped on charters and to address the deficient policies that actually have held back their success in some regions.
In the realm of slander, left-wing advocacy groups appear to be racing to outdo each other. The NAACP called for a freeze on all new charters last fall, alleging that independently operated schools siphon resources from needy public-school students. Then, when the group reiterated its stance in July, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten piled on by condemning charters as the “cousins of segregation.”
These two intermingled charges don’t stand up to the evidence. If there is one area in which charter schools have excelled, it has been in delivering results for poor black and Hispanic students. Just like its previous nationwide study in 2013, the latest report from the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes showed that charters improved performance in reading and math at a higher rate than traditional public schools among low-income minority students. Accusations of discrimination have likely stoked public fears about charters, but frankly, the positive results in classrooms across the country will continue to speak for themselves over time.
In the long run, expanding the practices that boost charter schools’ performance will be more important for sustaining such schools’ popularity than merely squashing thin left-wing criticisms. There are several states and regions in which charters have indeed lagged — rarely to the point of significantly underperforming neighboring public schools, but enough to make parents skeptical about the promises of the model. Fortunately, some of the differences between regions where charters flourish and ones where they flounder are clear, and could be corrected by shifts in state policy.
In the long run, expanding the practices that boost charter schools’ performance will be more important for sustaining such schools’ popularity than merely squashing thin left-wing criticisms.
The first big difference-maker in charter-school outcomes by region is the presence of authorizers that actively shut down underperforming schools. States such as Florida and Arizona, where charters are finally managing to reduce the achievement gap between their white and black students, are also among the leaders in closing low-performing schools: both closed more than 5 percent of their charters in 2015–16 alone. To ensure that poor-performing schools are held to account, regional authorizers must have both the power to close schools and the incentive to do so. Confoundingly, many charter-school authorizers are compensated based on the number of schools in their portfolios. In Michigan, where charters still outperform traditional public schools by a slight margin, a recent New York Times Magazine feature was nonetheless right to point out that the cash-strapped colleges and school boards that accredit charters have often hesitated to close schools and hurt their own bottom lines.
A second, even clearer difference between regions where charters succeed and regions where they struggle is the balance of independent versus network-affiliated schools. Headlines often tout the fact that urban charters fare better than suburban ones, but much of this trend can be chalked up to the fact that charter schools in cities are likelier to belong to networks. These networks reduce the administrative costs for each of their schools and provide invaluable know-how for teachers and administrators at newly opened locations. Although the network model is already spreading to some sparsely populated areas, states could attract more power players like the Knowledge Is Power Program and Great Hearts Academies to their suburbs with tailored tax incentives.
Since the first charter opened in 1991, school reformers have argued that the charter model would allow states and individual schools to test innovative methods of education. A quarter century of trials has proved these reformers right, with charter schools producing unmatched benefits for their students in most but not all cases. Now, the charter movement — like many of the graduates it has produced — is coming of age, ready to apply the best practices of its early years on a more consistent basis. Of course, maturity for charters shouldn’t mean an end to “experimenting.” But to restore public confidence, and spread the success of the charter model to every region in the nation, those states who haven’t yet done so should move quickly to create the conditions under which it has been proven most effective.