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The Unsound Logic of Charter Schooling

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Although there are numerous problematic aspects of many charter schools that rightfully garner a great deal of public attention—their growing for-profit nature, their inability to accommodate students with special needs, the low pay for their teachers, etc.—one rarely hears that charter schooling, as it is currently practiced, is essentially an inferior version of traditional public schooling with uniforms. This fixation on school uniforms—which, despite the rhetoric of educational innovation, is often the only thing noticeably distinct about many charters—emerged as different aspects of the school choice movement converged and points to the underlying and unsound logic of charter schooling.

Each year, more and more of America’s children are enrolled not in their neighborhood public schools but in charter schools.  According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics, the number of charter school students jumped from under a million to 2.7 million in the decade between 2004 and 2014. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools estimates that 3.1 million children enrolled in charter schools during the 2016-2017 academic year.

Charter schools, as they were initially envisioned, were supposed to be bastions of innovation that would provide practical guidance to traditional public schools regarding reform. Many teachers supported this idea, as did their unions and leaders, such as the former president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker, who helped formulate the concept of charter schooling.

As the idea of charter schooling was percolating in the 1980s, there also was a growing interest in Catholic-school education among reformers and policy makers, an interest piqued by the work of sociologist James S. Coleman. In his High School Achievement and Public and Private High Schools, Coleman and his co-authors argued that Catholic schools out-performed traditional public schools because of their more rigorous academic standards and their ability to foster “functional communities.” (Despite statistically controlling for a number of variables, such comparisons of Catholic and traditional public schools still have to contend with the fact the Catholic schools, unlike public schools, select their students and charge tuition, factors that certainly impact academic achievement.)

As the charter school idea became a reality in the 1990s and 2000s, the school choice movement partially converged with Coleman’s romanticized vision of a Catholic-school community, a convergence that is captured in educational scholar Diane Ravitch’s 1994 essay “Somebody’s Children.” Thus, a subset of the choice advocates envisioned that charter schools would parallel the rigor and community of Catholic schools. In practice, that vision was never fully realized, perhaps because for-profit businesses often dominate the charter school sector in many states; in Michigan, according to Ravitch, over eighty percent of charter schools are managed by private companies. Innovation and Catholic-style education are expensive and, thus, run counter to the profit-driven motives of the educational management organizations (EMOs).

Instead of opening schools that truly parallel the essence of Catholic education, many charter school developers seem to have seized upon the most superficial (and cheapest) aspect of Catholic schooling, its uniforms. The “logic” that seems to undergird this “reform” runs something like this:

1) Catholic schools out-perform many other schools academically.

2) Catholic schools require students to wear uniforms.

3) Therefore, if charter schools were to require uniforms their students would perform better academically.

Of course, this simplistic logic is unsound; the absurd conclusion simply does not follow from the premises. While I have not heard charter advocates explicitly argue this position, the reality of many charters’ strict adherence to school uniforms without any other substantive difference from traditional public schools is suggestive.

As a teacher educator at Eastern Michigan University (EMU)—located in a state that has led the way for charter schooling—I am intimately familiar with a number of charter schools in southeastern Michigan. Many of the charter schools in the region, although seemingly mimicking Catholic-style education, are a far cry from educational innovation. That is, many for-profit charter schools educate students in ways that are quite similar to traditional public schools, sometimes using the same curricular materials. In fact, the academic performance of charter schools also is quite similar to that of traditional public schools, as Gary Miron and Jessica L. Urschel found in an exhaustive review of the research.

Nevertheless, parents are sending their children to these schools despite the mounting evidence that they offer few, if any, academic benefits beyond what traditional public schools confer. There is a lure to sending one’s children to an “academy,” as the charter schools in Michigan are often branded by the for-profit EMOs. Parents likely think their kids look cute in their little khakis, polos, and top-siders. Because charter schools are often located in poor urban areas—the traditional public schools in wealthy suburbs perform quite well and, thus, experience very little “competition” from charter schools—parents might get the impression that this is the kind of schooling rich kids get in their private day schools, which, of course, it is not.

It should be noted that the charter school movement in the U.S. is quite diverse. Although many charter schools superficially mimic Catholic schools without offering substantive educational change, some charters—albeit too few—are actually quite unique and innovative. For example, the James and Grace Lee Boggs School in Detroit which, founded by the Civil Rights leader Grace Lee Boggs and chartered by EMU, focuses on student efficacy and community engagement. These types of schools—the ones that challenge the status quo of American education—are keeping with the original vision of charter schooling.

In practical terms, to correct the unsound logic of charter schooling and to preserve its original vision, states need to stop granting charters to schools that only differ superficially from neighborhood schools and—because the two often go hand-in-hand—prohibit the for-profit EMOs in this educational sector. The nation would be better served by charters if such schools were truly bastions of innovation that, in turn, could point to tangible ways in which traditional public schools could better cater to the educational needs of America’s children.

Paul J. Ramsey is a teacher educator at Eastern Michigan University and the author of numerous publications on educational policy and the history of education, including Bilingual Public Schooling in the United States: A History of America’s “Polyglot Boardinghouse” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

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