Charter schools have received strong support — both symbolically and substantively — from President Barack Obama's administration.
One of Obama's first forays as president to a public school of any kind was to the Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, just days after his inauguration. “[T]his kind of innovative school … is an example of how all our schools should be,” the president told students at the school on Feb. 3, 2009, as he promoted the then-pending economic stimulus plan. The plan, which Congress adopted, included millions of dollars for K-12 education, including the Race to the Top grants competition designed to prod the states on key education issues.
In January, in a visit to a regular public school in Falls Church, Va., the president noted that many states were adopting reforms to better position themselves for a grant. “In Illinois, Louisiana, Tennessee, California, we've seen changes in laws or policies to let public charter schools expand and succeed,” Obama said. “These are public schools with more independence that are formed by teachers, parents and community members.”
Now nearly two decades old, charter schools are widely considered to be at a crossroads. Since the first one opened in St. Paul, Minn., in 1992, 40 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws authorizing charters, which operate with public funds but largely free of the bureaucracy surrounding traditional public schools. Some 1.4 million children attend nearly 4,700 U.S. charter schools, according to the National Charter School Research Project at the University of Washington at Bothell.
While charter enrollment growth has increased about 9 percent annually over the last five years, charter enrollment represents just 3 percent of the public school population. But President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been working to get charters into the mainstream mix. As part of Race to the Top, Duncan encouraged states with caps on the number of charter schools to increase those caps. States that did not act would be last in line to receive grants from the $4.35 billion fund, the secretary made clear. (The two states receiving the first grants this spring, Delaware and Tennessee, both acted to permit more charter schools.)
In March, the Obama administration released its plan for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 (of which the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is the latest version), and the plan includes significant proposals on charter schools. One would make “school turnaround grants” available to states and school districts to help them impose “rigorous interventions” in their lowest-performing schools. Under the “restart” model, a low-performing school would be closed and reopened under the direction of a charter board or charter management organization.
The second major charter piece of the ESEA plan comes under the rubric of “expanding educational options.” The proposal would provide competitive grants to states, charter school authorizers, charter management organizations, school districts and other groups to start or expand “high-performing” charter schools. The plan stresses that grant recipients would have to show progress with all subgroups of students, as the No Child Left Behind law outlined, such as English-language learners and students with disabilities.
The administration's proposals have mostly won praise in the charter school world.
“We are really excited about the strong support from this administration,” said Brooks Garber, vice president for federal advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “These proposals will help grow our best models.”
But not every advocate for charter schools is enamored by the growing federal role in the sector. Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, which has long advocated for more choice in education, is troubled by the conditions the administration's plan would impose on charter schools.
Students at Capital City Public Charter School in Washington visit Ben's Chili Bowl, one of the few U Street businesses to survive the 1968 riots, as part of their study of the Civil Rights movement. (Capital City Public Charter School)
“There is a memory loss about why we have public charter schools in the first place,” Allen says. “The notion of the autonomous public school that we call a charter that comes from the ground up and can break the rules is getting lost.”
The growing federal role has focused attention on whether charter schools are living up to their promise. An analysis of charter school performance in 15 states and the District of Columbia, conducted by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes at Stanford University, showed mixed results for charters. While 17 percent of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, 37 percent showed gains that were worse than traditional schools, with 46 percent demonstrating no significant difference.
“In some ways, charter schools are just beginning to come into their own,” said the study. “And yet, this study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their [traditional public school] counterparts.”
Such studies play a part in a new critique of the charter movement by the education researcher Diane Ravitch. In a new book, Ravitch reexamines her longtime support for choice and competition in public education.
“Charters are supposed to disseminate the free-market model of competition and choice,” writes Ravitch, who was an assistant secretary of education under President George H. W. Bush. “Now charters compete for the most successful students in the poorest communities, or they accept all applicants and push the low performers back into the public school system.”
Allen of the Center for Education Reform takes issue with she calls Ravitch's “ivory tower” critique.
“What have charter schools done after all these years?” Allen said. “You not only have 1.5 million children who were not served well by the public school system being served by them. But they have helped spark this debate we're having on standards and performance pay — all as a result of having 5,000 schools challenging the status quo.”
— Mark Walsh, Washington freelancer and contributing writer, Education Week