Charter Schools

Whether charter schools reflect a crucial innovation for empowering children or a dangerous experiment that leaves out children (or both) remains deeply contested.

To proponents of the charter school movement, charter schools are all about choiceandquality. Charter schools, say their proponents, multiply options for parents and youth exploring an educational experience that suits their needs. Because charter schools have greater flexibility than public schools (as long as they achieve the goals set out in their charters), they have the freedom to move away from government-mandated standards such as Common Core. Making space for the market forces of comparison and choice, say proponents, leads to a proliferation of innovations that help children learn, help teachers teach, and hold teachers accountable for quality education. From this view, the charter school movement has achieved remarkable results, increasing graduation rates and test scores dramatically in low-income areas where public schools have been struggling for decades.

Critics of the charter school movement point to perceived problems such as a lack of transparency and accountability from the typically private entities that operate charter schools; weeding-out strategies allegedly used to exclude low-performing students to improve test scores; lack of union representation and other protections for hard-working teachers; and the routing of precious funds away from the public school system. From this vantage point, for every charter school success story there seems to be a dismal failure. Indeed, it’s not always clear whether charter schools are truly succeeding - and are not, for example, simply excluding students who reduce, or might reduce, their average test scores. Thus some believe that the charter school movement is adangerous experiment that doesn’t help all American children.

Still others are concerned about charter schools for a different reason: that the rise of such a wide variety of schooling experiences represents a step away from a universalized vision of public education. When universal schooling was rapidly expanded in the 19th century, say these critics, all American children were socialized with the same citizenship goals in mind, and this public good has been a direct contributor to the strength of our democratic society. The “common schools” movement, say some, was created with the goals of making education universal, non-sectarian, free, and productive of a well-informed citizenship. In this view, we are watching as something critically important to our democracy is being dismantled.

Promoters of charter schools counter this view by pointing out that the centralized “Prussian” educational system imported by Horace Mann in the 1830s was intended more to control than to inform the citizenry. In this view, the charter school movement represents a return to a small, locally controlled, authentically diverse, truly American educational system.