Nationally, Charter School Movement Beset By Oversight Scandals, Low Funding

Oct 23, 2015

Credit Flickr user: schoolchoiceweek

The national charter school movement is growing - 2.5 million students are attending roughly 6,000 charter schools.

Another 1 million students are on wait lists.

Still, there are issues: charter schools overall receive less funding than traditional public schools and are located primarily in urban areas, limiting access to students in rural communities.

Accountability and oversight controversies in states like Ohio grab headlines, and the Washington state Supreme Court recently ruled that state's charter school program was unconstitutional.

Education Week reporter Arianna Prothero joined NHPR's Morning Edition to talk about the national charter school movement.

Can you give us the national charter school picture? What kind of growth are we seeing?

Charter schools have been around for almost 25 years now. Nationally, we see about 2.5 million students in around 6,000 charter schools. What we hear a lot of times from charter school supporters is that there’s still a lot of demand for more charter schools. There are about a million students on wait lists for charter schools.

Despite all the growth, there’s still a lot of pushback to charter schools. What are critics saying?

A lot of time what they say is that charter schools do not serve all students; that charter schools – and again, this is the critics’ message – that charter schools are failing to serve students with disabilities or special needs or English language learners, and how that can sometimes bump up the academic gains that charter schools are making in comparison to traditional district schools.

What’s the response from charter school backers?

The rebuttal is often that charter schools are serving low-income students, minority students in urban areas, and that they do try to meet the needs and serve all students. Charter advocates will still acknowledge that there are bad actors in the field that maybe aren’t serving the right amount of students with special needs, but that overall, that is a problem that exists in a few areas, and is not representative of the sector as a whole.

Has there been any solid research on performance of students at charter schools compared to traditional public schools?

Education research tends to be a pretty contested field. A lot of people throw their weight behind the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), which is based at Stanford University in California. They’ve found that charters on average across the country that charters don’t significantly outperform district schools, and do about the same.

Areas with charters outperforming district peers include Boston, Newark, San Francisco, New York. But there are also cases of charters that are not outperforming their district peers. Examples of that...would be Las Vegas, Fort Worth, Phoenix.

However, there are pockets that do well, specifically in urban areas. Some of those areas with charters outperforming district peers include Boston, Newark, San Francisco, New York. But there are also cases of charters that are not outperforming their district peers. Examples of that, according to CREDO, would be Las Vegas, Fort Worth, Phoenix, places like that.

How much does funding play into this? I know charter schools here in the Granite State that with limited funding, they have a hard time holding onto quality teachers. What do we know about funding in various states and how that affects outcomes?

Overall, charter schools do receive less funding than district schools. Where I think less funding really hurts the charter school sector is in terms of facilities. It is really hard for charter schools to get school buildings, and that can create a lot of problems in terms of outcomes. If your school is moving every year, that’s tough on students. If you’re crammed into a church basement, it can be hard to attract students and quality staff. That’s the main area where you see the lack of funding negatively impacting charter schools.

The Washington Supreme Court recently ruled that state’s charter school law was unconstitutional. What kind of impact could that decision have nationally?

Probably not a lot. Every state constitution is different. In Washington, basically what the state constitution says is that a public school is a school that has an elected school board. Charter schools don’t really have elected school boards; they have appointed school boards because they’re basically run by nonprofits. The Washington State Supreme Court said because charter schools don’t have elected school boards, they technically don’t count as public schools and therefore are not about allowed to get public funding. If they can’t get public funding, there’s really no way they can operate.

That’s not necessarily the case in every state and I think it’s important to note that not only is every state constitution different, but many states have had charter laws for well over a decade that have already been challenged in court and have survived those challenges. That said, I know there are charter school critics that are looking at the Washington State Supreme Court decision very closely to see if there’s anything that could apply in their state.

Credit Indiana Public Media via Flickr Creative Commons

A recent federal monitoring review raised some concerns about New Hampshire’s oversight of charter school finances. What kinds of issues are we seeing when it comes to oversight of charter schools in other states?

So again, this comes down to charter law and that law is written for each state. It’s important to note that each state has its own charter law and they can vary quite a bit. Some states don’t have a lot of restrictions written into their law regarding how much financial data and information charter schools have to keep and share. Some states have come under a lot of fire for having these weaker laws; Ohio would be the primary example, where there’s not a lot of oversight of charter schools and where there have been several instances of charter schools behaving badly and generating pretty negative headlines. That’s not all charter schools in Ohio, but there’s been enough where it’s raised a lot of scrutiny in that state of the charter school sector.

New Hampshire now has 25 charter schools, but only a handful of those are in rural areas. Is that a common problem for other states?

That is a common problem. Charter school advocates would say it’s a problem, critics would say it’s not a problem. But it is hard for charter schools to really take root in rural areas. It’s hard for the simple fact that there’s just not that many students and they tend to be pretty spread apart. So all the issues that the charter school sector struggles with are really exacerbated in rural areas; it’s harder to find facilities, it’s harder to find students. Competition and pushback from the local school district is going to be tougher because of more competition for fewer bodies.