Charter Schools: No, Yes, and Maybe


Students at a New Orleans Charter School

People with views on charter schools often seem to be divided into two opposing teams. Supporters tend to argue that charter schools can completely transform American education and provide a remedy for every real or perceived ill in our system of public schooling. Opponents portray the charter school movement as an unmitigated disaster. I think this polarization is odd because the evidence on charter schools is quite mixed.  Most recently, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) of Stanford University followed up an earlier 2009 study (which showed mixed results) and found (1) progress in the charter school sector has been slow, but generally better than among traditional public schools, (2) some charter schools show worse results than traditional public schools, but the percentage of charter schools showing better results has increased since an earlier 2009 study, (3) there are still many charter schools that have poor outcomes in general and compared to traditional schools, (4) charter schools have learning gains across the 27 states included in the study, even after controlling for student characteristics, (5) charter schools that had been included in the 2009 study showed modest improvements  since that time relative to traditional public schools, while outcomes for new charter schools looked similar to those in the earlier study, and (6) charter schools are especially helpful for low-income students, black students, and English language learners. This presents us with a generally optimistic view of the charter strategy and suggests that the strategy can be especially helpful for the disadvantaged, but it certainly doesn’t indicate that charter schools can cure every ill or that they free of problems of their own.

This report is particularly interesting to me because I have just published a short piece in the magazine Contexts, as part of a forum on charter schools. There, I point out that charter schools have presented many challenges in New Orleans, where charters now make up the majority of schools, but that educational results appear to have improved since the adoption of charters, and that the evidence, while inconclusive, suggests that the improvement is due to the charter system. I caution against expecting too much from this strategy, and suggest that local school districts should consider the setting and alternatives in deciding whether to turn to charters or retain traditional public schools.

The other authors in the forum, only one of whom favors charter schools, raise good points. Diane Ravitch, an educational expert whom I greatly admire, acknowledges that the effect of charters on educational outcomes is mixed, but takes a position of strong opposition because she sees charters as legitimizing the privatization of education and undermining the idea of schooling as a public responsibility. This is a reasonable concern. If we want schools to be controlled by local voters and the property-tax payers who provide the backbone of support for schools, then the removal of control from locally elected school board members, either by private corporations or by larger governmental entities, should give us cause. In the case of New Orleans, the introduction of the charter system followed a state takeover of much of the school district. However, given the disastrous state of the city’s traditional public schools and the staggering incompetence and corruption of local school officials, I’m inclined to say that both the state seizure of control and the charter experiment were warranted by circumstances. In locations with functioning  district administrations, I suggest that the voters and their elected officials should be deciding whether to retain traditional schools or try charters, and they should do so based on their own circumstances. Since the CREDO report indicates that charters work best in disadvantaged, minority school districts, these are the places that could benefit from charters. Where the traditional public school system is working reasonably well, radical experimentation is probably not desirable.

Michael J. Petrelli, executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham educational think tank, supports charter schools, which he believes can desegregate our schools. Others have also argued that charters can promote desegregation by giving whites and the economically advantaged programs that draw them in to minority-dominated school districts. Again, I would caution against expecting too much. It may indeed be the case that some middle class white, black, or Hispanic families will send their children to schools in districts with large proportions of disadvantaged minority members if this means superior educational opportunities for their children. But while we can point to individual schools in which this happens, we should recognize that it is extremely unlikely that there will be a large-scale reverse white-flight or reverse middle class flight to take part in charter schools. In most cases, no program, whether charter or magnet or other, can offset the consequences of concentrated socioeconomic disadvantage enough to provide incentives for those who can avoid this concentrated disadvantage. If a charter can bring in a more heterogeneous student body, that’s fine, but don’t count on it.

Linda A. Renzulli and Maria Paino, sociologists at the University of Georgia, base their criticisms of charter schools on the instability created by charter school closures, and they cite evidence from North Carolina that this state’s closures have been due to fiscal and administrative reasons, not for academic reasons. Again, this is a serious concern.  I’m not as confident as Renzulli and Paino that North Carolina represents the nation, but one does have to think about what the creative destruction of market economics means for students.  However, once again, there is no perfect system and we cannot judge a school strategy by pointing out specific drawbacks. Ultimately, the question must be whether students benefit, and the evidence does suggest that charter schools, with all their instability and shortcomings, especially benefit the most disadvantaged.

Finally, Chris Bonastia, a sociologist at Lehman College, takes a view opposite that of Petrelli and argues that charter schools share similarities with segregationist schools of an earlier historical period  and maintains that most charters today are highly segregated racially. Bonastia’s historical comparison seems far-fetched to me and I can’t see the connection between old segregationist efforts and contemporary charter schools. He is right that charter schools are generally segregated de facto, but this is because the charters largely serve the interested of localities where minority students predominate. In my comments on New Orleans, I observe that the district in 2011-2012 was about 90 percent African American and 85 percent low-income (as measured by free and reduced lunch status).  This is not in any way a consequence of charter schools: the public schools of New Orleans were almost entirely African American before the charter experiment. Similarly, inner city school districts across the nation, whether they have charters or traditional public schools, simply do not have enough white students for any kind of meaningful desegregation.  Bonastia laments the fact that “the choice of quality, integrated schools is rarely even on the table” for minority students.” Of course it isn’t. You cannot provide choices that do not exist. Given the demographics of American school districts, the real issue is whether charter schools offer minority students better options than they would otherwise have.

The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Carl L. Bankston’s Page here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?

Copyright © 2013 Carl L. Bankston III.

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