The Myth of Charter Schools is unraveling

From the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet

By Valerie Strauss

Two new reports about public charter schools expose serious issues about the way they are run and their effectiveness.

The first was a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about Imagine Schools Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit charter school network, which is based in Arlington, Virginia and which operates more than 71 schools in more than a dozen states — including Maryland — and the District of Columbia.

The story detailed complicated real estate deals through which the six Imagine schools operating in St. Louis with public dollars “are generating millions of dollars” for Imagine and a Kansas City-based real estate investment company.

Essentially, Imagine sells its buildings to a company that leases them back to Imagine, which pays extremely high rent with public dollars. The paper reported that Imagine’s 2010 annual report shows that revenue grew to $265 million that year from $95 million in 2006.

Furthermore, students in Imagine schools in St. Louis performed worse this year on standardized tests than practically any other school in the city. Now, Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro is urging Missouri Baptist University to close the six Imagine charters that it sponsors.

The disclosures highlight the inherent problems in allowing for-profit companies operate public schools with public funds. Businesses have one bottom line: making money, and that should never be the bottom line for the way a civic enterprise should be operated.

The second report was a study about the practices and effectiveness of charter schools run by groups that operate multiple schools — called charter school management organizations, or CMOs. There are now some 130 charter school management organizations, accounting for about one-fifth of more than 5,000 public charter schools around the country.

The study, done by Mathematica Policy Research and the Center on Reinventing Public Education, looked specifically at management and instructional practices at 40 of these organizations and the academic achievement of middle-school students attending schools run by 22 of these CMOs.

The findings showed that the impacts in reading, math, science and social studies were widely varied, but here’s the critical conclusion:

“Test score impact estimates for the average CMO after two to three years in middle school are positive in all four subjects, but they are not statistically significant.”

There’s plenty more in the report that isn’t likely to make the funders, the pro-charter Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, jump for joy.

I’m the first to say that test scores should not be considered a definitive measure of anything, but test scores are the measure that these reformers swear by, so, when you live by test scores, you die by them too.

None of this means, of course, that all charter schools are bad. Some are terrific, though growing evidence shows that the majority are not better and may be worse — when it comes to test scores — than traditional schools.

The problem is that they are seen by many reformers as THE answer to failing traditional schools, and they aren’t. There are all kinds of problems; for example, many of them don’t serve disabled children in the same percentages as traditional schools, some illegally toss out students who are behavior or academic problems.

And many of the touted successes aren’t as big as they are said to be. Take the charter schools run by Geoffrey Canada in the famed Harlem Children’s Zone, which have been hailed as model charters. Here’s what education historian Diane Ravitch wrote in her updated edition of the best-selling “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” about these schools:

“Canada’s HCZ is an antipoverty program in Harlem that provides a broad array of medical and social services to children and families, such as health programs, preschool, after-school tutoring, and parenting clasess. Its three charter schools are far better funded than nearby regular public schools. Its small high school has classes of fewer than fifteen students with two licensed teachers in each classroom. Because it has a very wealthy board of trustees, HCZ has an endowment of $200 million. Even with the ample resources available to HCZ, its charters had many students in 2010 who did not meet state standards for proficiency in reading: 62 percent in one school, and 38 percent in the other. In the seventh grade, where students were in their third year, only 15 percent met state standards. When Geoffrey Canada first recruited students to his charter middle school, they entered with low scores; after three years, when their scores remained low, he kicked out the entire class. The neighborhood public schools can’t do this.”

With all of the hoopla surrounding charter schools, you’d think they educate a substantial percentage of America’s children. They don’t; it is under 4 percent,according to a new report by the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

But there is no doubt that they are growing in number. We commonly hear from reformers that with innovation we must expect some failure, and that the charter experiment is worth the occasional failure. There are arguments to be made that charters aren’t exactly “innovative,” given that the longer class times and school years that some are known for didn’t originate with them. But the real problem is that the failures aren’t occasional, and they aren’t simple to fix.

Solutions to problems that in turn cause at least as many new problems aren’t really great solutions, are they?

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