Charter Schools: The good, the bad and the ugly
By Marina Ballantyne Walne, Ph.D.
Over the years, I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of charter schools.
First, let’s take the ugly. In the early years, enthusiastic state board members in some states authorized numerous charter schools that did not pass rigorous screening, leading to charters that used state funds to pay its leaders and family members excessive salaries. This abuse has been fixed across the U.S. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers was created to support charters in developing rigorous screening systems.
Now for the bad. About 15 percent of charters simply have not provided a quality education. These failing schools should be closed in order to protect the interests of students and the public, just as traditional public schools failing students should be closed or turned over to another set of leaders and staff to operate.
On to the good – and sometimes great. Charter schools give families CHOICE, particularly in situations where their local traditional public schools have failed them.
Many of the leading charter schools such as Summit Atlas, which has a location in White Center, YES Prep, KIPP, Achievement First, Rocketship and Brooklyn LAB Charter School, have the freedom to try new instructional approaches and offer innovative approaches to ensuring that all students achieve at high levels and fulfill their potential.
Research is showing that, contrary to popular myths, charter schools do not skim off the top nor do they expel students at rates higher than traditional public schools. These schools oftentimes simply provide a better education.
In June of 2013 Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) conducted a comprehensive survey of charter schools, looking at 2.3 million charter school students in 25 states, as well as New York City and Washington, D.C. Although many have challenged the methodology, it is the largest charter school study to date.
In math, the study found that 29 percent of charter schools showed “significantly stronger learning gains” than their public school peers, with 40 percent performing similarly and 31 percent “significantly weaker.” In reading, 25 percent of charters showed “significantly stronger learning gains” than public schools, 56 percent showed no difference and 19 percent showed “significantly weaker gains.”
Perhaps more interesting, CREDO’s research and other studies have shown that many charter schools have helped low-income students, African American, and Latino students outperform their peers in traditional public schools.
Part of the success is credited to high expectations for students and staff, but success can also be attributed to the charter governance structure.
Charters are nonprofit corporations governed by an independent board of trustees. Traditional public schools are governed by elected officials, many of whom aspire for higher office and who want to make a name for themselves by instituting many changes, causing instability in schools. This is particularly true in large urban areas.
Independent school boards on the other hand, can provide steady leadership for many years, which keeps the charter focused on its mission.
There is a reason why more than one million students are on waiting lists for charter schools in this country. In many instances, the charter school is simply a better option for families.
Until our traditional public schools prove that they can provide a quality education for every child, they should not hold a monopoly on public funds for education. We need competition. And, students and their families need choices.
I believe that all schools should be held accountable. We need engines of innovation in the public sector, which many charter schools provide.
I have learned this from experience. While serving as Assistant and then Director of Admissions at Rice, I visited 400 of the best public and private schools in the nation, inspiring me to start a private school near Houston, The John Cooper School. I’ve also consulted in the startup of seven other schools, including UT Elementary School, the first university sponsored charter school in Texas. This school was a pioneer in implementing Social Emotional Learning.
I have also contributed to policy development at the state and federal levels. I’ve been involved in the charter school movement in Texas since 1996, one year after the state first authorized charter schools. As a consultant to the Texas Governor’s Business Council, I helped create four organizations that supported the growth of high quality charters.
My passion for creating excellent education options for all students has led me to co-found O3 Schools. Our goal at O3 Schools is to support “edu-preneurs” who want to start more high quality schools. Some of these will be charter schools, and we expect them to be good to great ones.
For more information, visit https://www.o3.school