Charter school reform: Not charters and not reform
By Terri Darr McLean
Dr. Gary Miron was an early believer in charter schools.
After all, he told attendees at KSBA’s Winter Symposium Dec. 1, the original idea behind them was “quite good” – to create locally run alternative public schools that would be innovative, highly accountable and high performing.
PHOTO: Dr. Gary Miron, a professor of evaluation, measurement and research at Western Michigan University, speaks about charter schools during a session at KSBA›s annual Winter Symposium.
Along the way, however, Miron said charter school reform took a different course and, as a result, what is being implemented today is not at all what was originally intended in the 1990s when it first began taking hold.
“Somebody stole the charter school idea,” he said.
Miron, a professor of evaluation, measurement and research at Western Michigan University, has evaluated numerous charter schools across the country and is considered an expert on charter school reform. He has been dubbed by some as anti-charter school, largely because, “I call it like I see it.”
And what he sees is not encouraging.
Miron said research shows that charter school performance is, on average, slightly lower than performance in demographically similar district schools. What’s more, innovation and accountability – two hallmarks of charter schools – are receiving less emphasis, even in some districts that once placed high value on them, he told the 300-plus board members, superintendents and others who attended the Winter Symposium.
Miron contrasted the policy objectives behind charter schools – the things that make charter schools look good on paper – with what research says about whether those objectives are being met.
A founding principle of charter schools is to “empower the locals” – educators and other innovators who want to offer something different than the traditional public schools, he said. Yet, in 2010-11, about 32 percent of the 5,500 charter schools in the United States were run by private companies located outside the school district.
“So we’re having charter schools not run from halfway across the district; our charter schools are being run from halfway across the country at corporate headquarters,” Miron said.
Charter schools tout enhanced opportunities for parental involvement and surveys of charter school parents show that they are slightly more satisfied than traditional public school parents. But, he added, many charter schools require their parents to volunteer.
Charter schools are supposed to be open to all students without admissions tests. They are, however, allowed to measure students’ interests and often use such information to be more selective in who gets in – and who doesn’t, Miron said. Furthermore, he said charter schools accelerate segregation not only by how they structure themselves but in how they market and advertise themselves.
Charter schools are designed to promote school choice, not only for parents and students but also for teachers who, ideally, “buy into” a school’s mission and, therefore, become part of a supportive professional community. But, Miron said, “what we’re seeing today is a very different pattern.”
Specifically, research shows high attrition rates among teachers in charter schools. Thirty to 40 percent of first-year teachers leave their schools, while between 20 and 30 percent of all teachers leave every year, he said. One survey showed that charter school teachers were dissatisfied with working conditions, pay and professional development.
What’s more, to deal with the high rate of teacher attrition, many charter schools are going toward scripted instruction, especially in schools run by private companies, which is “not at all innovative,” Miron said.
“So this notion that charter schools were going to offer school choice for teachers hasn’t lived up,” he added.
Miron reiterated that charter schools are supposed to be highly accountable in terms of student achievement. While there are some “exceptional” charter schools in the United States, he said more than 70 “increasingly strong” studies show that, overall, students in charter schools are not performing as well as students in demographically matched district schools. And while studies show that charter schools gain more ground over time than their demographically matched district schools, they tend to “plateau.”
Miron also blames ineffective oversight for derailing charter school reform. “This is where school boards come in,” he said. “Most school boards are unwilling or unable to provide oversight. ... It’s hard to hold them accountable, so they depend on the charter schools to tell them how they’re doing,” he said.
Effective lobbying by charter school proponents has also had a negative impact, Miron added. “There’s so much hype about how fantastic they (charter schools) are. … In the end it’s hurting charter school reform.”
Despite his misgivings, Miron said he remains a believer in the original intent of charter schools. But, he told the plenary session crowd, “When we talk about the charter school idea – I’m angry. I still believe in the charter school idea, but somebody’s stolen that idea and they call these things charter schools, and I’m not happy. … We should call them something different – should call them corporate schools, call them franchise schools. Don’t call them charter schools.”
—McLean is a writer from Lexington