Charter Schools: Making A Dent In Education

Charter schoolIn May 2015, I attended the commencement ceremony at one of Arizona’s most celebrated charter schools, BASIS Chandler. Dr. Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, executive vice president of Arizona State University (ASU), congratulated students for their achievements and asked them to consider ASU as their first choice for college.

Any BASIS student wearing the graduation gown that night could get into ASU with their eyes closed.

Named the seventh-best high school and the fifth-best charter school in the nation, BASIS Chandler students are homogeneously Asian with a sprinkling of white students, hardly reflecting the demographics of the city where the school is located. Hispanics and blacks form a minority’s minority here, but you see the reverse in a public school just a few miles away.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools defines charter schools as “independently-operated public schools that have the freedom to design classrooms that meet their students’ needs.”

Charter schools are not for everyone and are meticulously designed for their student populations even though they claim they are open for all. BASIS thrives in Arizona, with an affluent and highly educated parent base that pushes children to excel in a rigorous, metrics-driven, test-based environment.

Compare this to Houston’s KIPP Public Schools, a charter group with 14,700 students across 11 schools, with 89 percent of students coming from low-income families. Here, the data is strikingly different and 50 percent of students from KIPP Houston graduate from college compared to 10.6 percent of Houston-area 8th graders from similar economic backgrounds.

As conservative school choice activists argue for greater funding for charter schools, like public schools, they differ in performance and student outcomes based on zip codes.

According to Paul Abramson, president of Stanton, Leggett & Associates, alternatives to public schools have existed since the 1920s through universities like Columbia.

Joe Nathan, Ph.D., wrote the nation’s first charter school law in 1991, having launched it as a movement twenty years earlier in the St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota. His experimental foray has made charter schools a formidable force in American education with a presence in 44 states, and with over 3 million students across 6,900 schools. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, they receive $342 million in funding and employ 129,000 teachers.

Charter schools are a byproduct of the school choice system that began after desegregation. School choice “allows public education funds to follow students to the schools or services that best fit their needs—whether that’s to a public school, private school, charter school, home school or any other learning environment parents choose for their kids,” says EdChoice, a strong proponent of the school choice movement in the country.

However, charter school critics like Abramson define school choice in a different way. “It’s a basic idea when our kids go to a school other than we like. In a large part, charter schools eventually play a role in the destruction of the public school and this has allowed people to push out and opt out of public schools always.”

Today, charter schools in affluent communities hire content specialists who drive higher test scores using well-crafted study guides and proven educational methodologies.

Vishnu Ganesh (13), has been studying in Arizona charter schools since second grade. “There is a greater focus on studying and extra emphasis on test preparation. I am not missing anything as there is lots more testing that normally does not happen at public schools,” the BASIS Chandler student said.

However, by eighth grade, the intense, test-based content aggregation model gets trying for some students and they start flocking to public schools. Any reduction in student numbers is painful for charter schools as they rely on state per pupil funding and have to fight hard for student retention.

A report from researchers at the University of Arkansas, found that funding for charter schools continues to lag behind that of traditional public schools by an average of $5,721 per student.

Yet, students who have studied in high performing charter schools have a better chance of earning more scholarships as they enter college.

Abramson says “ charter schools are a destructive concept. They are being used by people who want test scores and they want to destroy the public school system and make a profit.”

According to him, public schools give an opportunity to break rules and start over. He cites the example of the Mamaroneck Public School District, in New York, that provides multiple educational choices for students within a public school system. Those with interest in STEM can join the robotics class while others interested in spirituality can attend a mindfulness period. Yet, others who just want a standard education can opt for a normal course load.

This contrasts with high performing charter schools where the focus is on test scores, graduation and entry into colleges.

Politics in the traditional school district system has always been advantageous to the proponents of the charter school system. As traditional school
district members jockey for powerful political positions, self-interest, greed and corruption override their interests in helping students.

A classic example of the failure of traditional school boards is what happened in New Orleans
after Katrina. Sadly, it took a massive natural disaster to shake up a public school system riddled by politics to get transformed into a charter school system.

“Before the storm, reforming traditional school districts was never a priority and politics became more the norm in school boards. However, after the storm, charter schools have been heavily weighed on as an alternative option and an important option,” said Steven Bingler, founder and CEO of Concordia, a New Orleans-based architecture firm.

“Everybody joined together and there was a collective action and there was the spirit of rebuilding schools in new ways,” Bingler said.

Led by Scott Cowen, former president of Tulane University, the New Orleans community started conversations to find out different ways to rebuild schools.

In 2005, the Louisiana Legislature ordered the state to takeover most of the city’s public schools and create public charter schools.

Earlier, in 2003, the Louisiana legislature had created the Recovery School District (RSD) to turnaround low-performing schools across the state. By August 2005, five failing schools in New Orleans had been transformed into charter schools under the auspices of the RSD.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the legislature transferred more than 100 low-performing Orleans Parish schools to the RSD. As of the 2014-15 school year, the RSD oversaw 57 charter schools operating in New Orleans under 24 different non-profit charter management organizations.

“There were lots of debates and there was suspicion that charter schools were being set up to make money for the private sector. The state put in a lot of checks and balances to understand people’s concerns and charter schools received a state mandate to be formed,” Bingler said.

In the post-Katrina world, 95 percent of students in New Orleans are going to charter schools. A community-centered master plan was drawn up and $2 billion was invested in brand new charter schools funded by the same student allocations as in the public school system.

According to Bingler, whose firm was closely involved in the design and other aspects of the rebuilding effort, “flexible school buildings were designed to accommodate different learning styles.”

Bingler sought the expertise of well-known educational facility planners, William De Jong, CEO of DeJONG Inc. and Sue Robertson, general manager of Facilities Planning for the Houston Independent School District (HISD) to develop an effective and innovative educational system.

The result was the creation of schools with different themes, some based on STEM, some based on art, some on design thinking, and maker spaces. Schools were designed so that they were fully accessible to the community.

“Charter schools soon started competing for students and every spring they have billboards and notices in town stating “come to our charter school,”

This was contrary to a former public school system led by seven elected members who were looking to build their own political careers. Today there are around 80 charter schools and each school has its own nonprofit status and their own board. Charter schools are now the centers of the community that the during after hours the public can access the school’s auditoriums and gymnasiums and use them as centers for health and wellness.

According to Bingler, taxpayers are paying less money to make more use of facilities already embedded into school buildings.

However, student performance is yet to see dramatic increases as public education in inner city new Orleans is impacted by multiple socioeconomic factors.

“It took a mindset to make this happen,” Bingler said. The key here has been innovation and a lot of transparency and community involvement. Across different measures, this charter school system has achieved success and people feel that “it just feels right” to build a system this way.

Despite successes in some quarters, charter school administrators have been accused of massive fraud, abrupt school closures and financial embezzlement of public money in Ohio, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Florida. This prompted HBO commentator, John Oliver, to make a scathing attack on the charter school system, pointing out it’s gross inefficiencies in states with less oversight.

According to Abramson, public schools in the U.S. give an opportunity for every student to succeed unlike highly selective educational systems like China where only the top students have access to a good education while a large majority are left to fend themselves on a mediocre education.

“All charter schools do is get kids out of school. In the whole idea of public schools, everybody has a chance. Profit is the motive and they don’t have a better body for accountability.”

Abramson feels that instead of spending more money on charter schools, efforts should be made to hire more social workers and invest more on creating school systems with smaller class sizes and necessary support systems.

However, charter schools definitely are making a dent in the education system in the country. A recent ruling by the Louisiana Supreme Court not to suspend state per pupil funding for 42 charter schools is great news for 16,000 students in the state.

“Around the country, there are states and communities where charter schools’ innovation, strong results, and popularity with families are threatening the status quo and rattling defenders of no-choice education. We hope that anyone who was hoping the Louisiana Supreme Court would rule against state per-pupil funding for charter schools will now re-consider how their time and resources could be better spent to make all public schools great,” says the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.