Some Truths About Charter Schools


There’s a minor storm brewing in NYC about Chancellor Farina’s remarks on charter school enrollment. Michael Mulgrew, the head of the local teacher’s union, has also weighed in.

I’m not familiar enough with the data to have an opinion.

But this brought to mind a conversation I recently had with a sitting superintendent. I asked the superintendent to tell me everything that he / she found objectionable to charter growth. Then I kept my mouth shut and listened.

I agreed with many of the objections, but not all. I’m working from memory, but see below for the list of objections and my responses.

1. Charter Schools Don’t Serve an Equal Proportion of Students with Severe Special Needs 

Unfortunately, much of the data on special education enrollment rates for charter schools groups lumps all special education students into a single category. This is unfortunate, as classification issues generally play a much bigger role in high incidence disabilities than they do in low incidence disabilities (i.e, with the right therapy, a student with speech difficulties may be exited from special education services; a student with cerebral-palsy will likely require special education services throughout her schooling). So punishing schools for low overall rates (rather than small low incidence disability rates) gets the incentives wrong.

But, in terms of my own personal experience, this critique rings true. In many charter schools I visit across the country, I don’t see a lot of students with severe disabilities.

In New Orleans, this trend wasn’t reversed until (a) charter schools reached a high market share and (b) we introduced a unified enrollment system.

2. Charter Schools Expel Students at Higher Rates than Traditional Schools

Nationally, there is no evidence that this is true. However, in certain cities, charter expulsion rates exceed district expulsion rates.

Additionally, most alternative schools are run by districts, so the district ends up serving a generally harder to reach student body.

In New Orleans, we developed a universal expulsion policy and a centralized expulsion office to manage this issue.

Charter schools in New Orleans also operate alternative settings for overage and adjudicated youth.

3. Charter Schools Don’t Backfill After Attrition

Given high urban mobility rates, I’ve generally been less concerned (save for at the extremes) about how many children leave charter schools, as the number is high in both district and charters.

However, most district schools replace students after they leave (to the extent that there is demand) . Many charter schools do not.

I view this as a major unfair advantage. District schools should not have to solely bear the burden of taking students in the upper grades.

In New Orleans, charter schools with openings in upper grades are generally required to backfill, including taking in mid-year arrivals.

4. Charter Schools Hurt Neighborhoods by Having Citywide Enrollment Policies

Personally, I think neighborhood schools are more bad than good. Many people do not agree with me, and many people dislike the fact that charter schools (in part because of federal mandates), generally do not have geographic boundaries.

In New Orleans, elementary and middle school charters have the option to give zoned preference for 50% of their seats. Many do.

5. Charter Schools Hurt Neighborhoods by Growing One Grade at a Time

Many of the nation’s best charter schools start with a single grade and then grow one additional grade each year.

This can cause disruption to communities, especially when a school like this opens after a fully enrolled school has been closed.

Ultimately, I think this disruption is worth the negative consequences, as the negative consequences are temporary, while the negative effects of opening up a less than excellent school are long-lasting.

That being said, I’m all for incentivizing charters to undertake full school turnarounds. Overtime, I hope that many operators make this a core competency. But until they do, I would not force them into turnarounds, despite the disruption caused by one grade at a time openings.

In Sum

I think it’s a major issue that charter schools probably serve less students with severe special needs; serve less adjudicated and expelled youth; and often do not backfill.

I’m less concerned about neighborhood enrollment, but feel like communities can design whatever rules they desire.

I don’t agree that one grade at a time openings should be restricted, but I understand the disruption they cause.

Ultimately, what I perceive to be the primary issues of inequity: severe special needs, very at-risk youth, and backfilling – can only be solved with sound regulation.

In New Orleans, the Recovery School District, with the charter community, developed a set of rules that resulted in increased equity.

Other cities would be wise to do the same. Of course, all of this is much easier to do if government is acting solely as a regulator and is not conflicted in its oversight duties.

But, as it stands, many charter sectors are regulated in ways that perpetuate inequities.

I hope this changes, as I think well regulated charter districts will serve students much better than the efforts of most current district regimes.

One last thought: I’m fairly sure most charter operators would gladly accept the rules that we developed in New Orleans, especially if it resulted in them getting equal access to funding and facilitates, which they most often do not have.

2 thoughts on “Some Truths About Charter Schools

  1. Roxana Marachi, PhD (@ConnectEdProf)

    Thanks for acknowledging the many issues with charter proliferation. Related concerns have been expressed by the American Bar Association and additional data about the charter sector engaging in higher rates of exclusionary discipline can be found in the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice report: Brown University’s Annenberg Institute recently published a set of Standards and Public Accountability recommendations for Charter Schools that address many of the issues raised above:

    The only issue that seems missing from the conversation is that of the forced parent work policies that are part of the standard operating procedures in approximately one-in-three California charters Do you think this trend is unique to California, or have you seen evidence of these policies in other charters nationally as well?

    You mentioned that “In New Orleans, the Recovery School District, with the charter community, developed a set of rules that resulted in increased equity.” I’m very interested to learn more about these rules, the timeline/process for implementation, and how equity had increased. If these guidelines, rules, or outcomes have been made available to the public, would you consider including a link? I searched and could not find anything related on the RSD site. Thank you!


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.