Charter Schools

In the last week, a number of reports have come across my desk regarding charter schools. These publically funded schools have been allowed to operate outside many of the rules, regulation and statutes that apply to traditional public schools in return for a guarantee to deliver on pre-agreed goals such as student performance and graduation rates. Two decades after the first charter school law was passed in Minnesota, it is still unclear whether they are a better option for our students.

For parents seeking escape from a failing school, charter schools provided a viable option. The National Education Association believes that, “charter schools and other nontraditional public school options have the potential to facilitate education reforms and develop new and creative teaching methods that can be replicated in traditional public schools for the benefit of all children.”

The Department of Education Report, “Impact of Charter Schools on School Districts,” reported that half of traditional school districts created new programs in response to charter schools. But while charters do create competition and encourage innovation, they come in a wide variety of types and sizes. And like traditional schools, some are successful and some are not. The question is how to measure their potential, effectiveness and success.

The data on charter schools is fuzzy at best, and this lack of adequate data has made charters an extremely polarizing issue. As part of their assessment of fourth-graders in reading and math, The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) conducted a pilot study. The results showed, “in mathematics, fourth-grade charter school students as a whole did not perform as well as their public school counterparts. In reading, there was no measurable difference in performance.”

A new report by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) comparing charter and local school district financial resources calls into question the true costs of being educated by a charter school. While some advocates of the charter school movement claim a better education for less, successful charters can spend a great deal more per student. In Houston, that would add up to a 23- to 30-percent cost increase. But once again, the data is fuzzy at best. The report states that, “data quality and financial reporting remain significant barriers to conducting accurate and precise comparative expenditure analyses across traditional public and charter school sites.”

So until there is better data available, the question of whether charter schools are the better option will remain unclear.