This past election will forever be one of the most anticipated presidential elections. While local elections will always be some of the most influential in terms of direct impact on communities, the presidential election will establish leadership for a country that is facing multiple tragedies. One ongoing and consistent tragedy that we can’t forget despite everything else going on is our country’s inequitable education system.
Due to the country’s consistent gaps in educational achievement, gaps that are being exacerbated by the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, education should be an area of focus for the federal government—and state and local governments—in 2021. One part of this conversation—which has already gotten political attention this year—is charter schools, which continue to be a political football. This piece lays out some recommendations for how the federal government should approach charter schools in 2021: How to build on the strengths of these schools in supporting students, particularly students of color, while addressing some of the valid concerns raised by both supporters and opponents.
People often use the terms “charter school” and “school choice” interchangeably, but they aren’t identical. So before getting into recommendations, it’s important to have a common understanding of what these terms generally mean:
- School choice: The umbrella term used to describe the idea that families should be able to have some choice in the school their child attends. Can apply to public or private school choice.
- Vouchers: Money given by a government at any level to families so students can attend a private school.
- Traditional district school: This is the public school format with which most of us are familiar: a publicly funded, no-fee school that serves students within a defined geographical area or district, and that is run by the district.
- Magnet school: A traditional public school that has supplemental instruction and/or specialized programs, usually to attract students who want to be a part of specialized programming.
- Nonprofit charter school: A publicly funded public school that operates independently from school districts, is run by a nonprofit and overseen by an authorizer, does not receive profits for the services they offer, and at which students do not pay tuition. The “charter” that the charter school possesses allows the school to have autonomy over all school operations—from schedule to curricula.
- For-profit charter school: This type of school is identical to the nonprofit charter school defined above, with one exception: the entity managing the school can be run for a profit. Of charter schools nationally, 12 percent of charter schools are for-profit.
Due to their independence in some aspects, charter schools are frequently lumped in with private schools. To do so, however, is incorrect: like traditional district schools, charter schools draw public funds and serve students without charging tuition.
How the Federal Government Should Work with Charter Schools in 2021
Charter schools are particularly controversial because they sit in the middle of the school choice debate: they are public schools, but they have more flexibility for innovation; and some communities argue that this greater flexibility is misused, and opens the door to exploitation and manipulation. They receive public funding, but not always in the same ways as traditional district schools. They are held to many of the same outcomes standards as other district schools, but have substantially more flexibility about how to get there. They do not have publicly elected school boards as most school districts do, but they do have organizational boards with varying degrees of connection to the community.
In any case, as we move forward with charter schools, here’s what the federal government should do.
Continue to fund the Federal Charter Schools Program (CSP) at the same level, as well as distributing federal funds beyond CSP to charter schools that qualify (e.g., distributing Title I funds to charter schools that serve low-income schools and students). There is no need to take funds away from this program, but also no need to dramatically increase funding.
Don’t defund schools kids are attending, period. That rule of thumb must include charter schools. Charter schools are confusing: they can present new issues, and their leadership can sometimes mirror the leadership of an exploitive entity with few community ties—all leading to general mistrust. While the frustration with these aspects of charter schools can exist, where it becomes difficult is when steps are taken that contradict the wishes of children, families, and communities. If a family decides one school option is better for them than another, that decision should be respected, and efforts should be made to understand why the decision was made. Let’s figure out how leaders and educators can continue to serve kids while also serving the community well and running great schools. This includes continuing to fund the creation of new schools that are serving kids well under the Charter Schools Program.
Don’t defund schools kids are attending, period.
Create a mandatory supplemental public scorecard specifically for charter schools that must be released by charters, made accessible to the public, and reviewed by states. Use scorecards to evaluate each stream of funding from government programs.
The Charter Schools Program details standards for charter schools who receive funding; states and authorizers also lay out standards. This oversight arrangement creates an opportunity for the collection of key data from charter schools as well. The Black–White achievement gap persists, and research is now making more clear than ever the connection that disparity has with differences in discipline. The burden to show achievement, equity, and understanding is on each individual charter school; and along with showing compliance with CSP, state, and authorizer standards, they should also be able to submit other information about their student body and their program and operations that will paint a more detailed picture.
All schools and networks should supplement the completion of CSP requirements by making public and easily accessible—including to families—details on enrollment, achievement, discipline, and demographics. The federal government should assemble this data into publicly available scorecards, where it can be evaluated by anyone, and, most importantly, by the communities the schools serve.
Create mandatory requirements for the makeup of leaders and boards of charter schools, to ensure they are connected to the communities they serve.
Charter school leadership arrangements tend to always be in question. From the people leading classrooms to the board members making financial decisions, and everyone in between, there are legitimate concerns about whether they truly represent—or understand—the communities they are serving. Critics specifically raise questions about the boards of large charter networks that typically center wealth and power in their membership, instead of community representation and a deep understanding of neighborhood history and needs.
If we believe charter schools should be led by board members or leaders that reflect the community, CSP should prioritize that need by requiring half of board members be directly from the community in which the school is located.
The country’s largest charter network, KIPP, has seventeen board members: based on a review by the author, its racial/ethnic makeup is: 59 percent White, 29 percent Black, and 12 percent Latinx/Hispanic. In comparison, KIPP reports that 95 percent of their 100,000-plus students are Black and/or Latinx/Hispanic. IDEA, another large charter management organization (CMO), has thirteen board members with the following racial/ethnic makeup (based on information provided by IDEA staff): 69 percent White, 23 percent Latinx/Hispanic, and 6 percent Middle Eastern. This provides for a stark comparison with the student body that IDEA serves, which is 93 percent Latinx/Hispanic and approximately 3 percent students who identify as both Black and Latinx/Hispanic. Despite the fact that Black and Brown students make up the majority of these networks, the overwhelming majority of board members are White. If we believe charter schools should be led by board members or leaders that reflect the community, CSP should prioritize that need by requiring half of board members be directly from the community in which the school is located. CSP should require that schools that receive funding have 50 percent of board members who reflect the community served. Moreover, this board demographic data should be made public: The demographics of all charter board members and demographic information should be reported in the supplemental charter public scorecard.
Require charter schools that receive CSP funding to report on enrollment and retention, and restrict or deny funding to charters that cherry pick easy-to-serve students or expel students who are harder to serve.
One very common criticism of charter schools is that they boost their academic results in two ways: (1) cherry picking the easiest students to serve, and (2) kicking out those who are harder to serve. Discovering whether this criticism is well-founded is unfortunately far from straightforward—and the answer varies. There is no easy way to generalize about the degree to which all public charter schools serve all students equitably.
However, where it is true, the practice of cherry picking or kicking out students who are harder to serve has an impact on multiple aspects of school program and operations: financial stability, classroom stability, and overpopulation within the school that students move to mid-year. In addition, kicking out students of course has a profound and long-term impact on students themselves. The issue here lies more in the fact that schools—any school—are allowed to do either in the first place. Let’s solve this problem for all charter schools and everyone they serve by making charter authorization contingent on the school not engaging in either.
To achieve this, CSP should make the following requirements concerning enrollment and discipline practices. On enrollment, CSP should specify and ensure that charter schools enrolling children outside of a lottery system (and sibling preference) are not able to receive CSP funds. And in terms of discipline, charter schools that expel kids for offenses that are not considered egregious under local school district standards would also no longer be eligible for CSP funding.
An example from Washington, D.C. will help in particular to illuminate the need for the latter requirement. Public School Review recently analyzed data 2013, and found that D.C. charter schools expelled 72 for every 10,000 students. In D.C.’s traditional district schools, the rate is 1 for every 10,000 students. The disparity is indeed striking, and D.C. charter opponents are correct to highlight the burden that the disparity places on traditional district schools. CSP should not fund schools that are creating hostile enrollment and retention environments. These oversight practices could provide an excellent model for similar inquiries and regulations in traditional district schools as well, and across the country.
It’s Time to Focus Again on What—and Who—Matters Most
To some degree, the complex and controversial differences between charter schools and district schools may be what they are; but in the end, they both serve Black and Brown kids, and their needs and those of their communities need to be prioritized—in leadership decisions as well as in the classroom. And at the same time, everything we’re expecting from charter schools should also be expected from traditional district schools.