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Charter Schools: Are They Achieving Results?

June 3, 2014

When KIPP DIAMOND Academy opened in 2002 the new charter school leased a handful of classrooms along two corridors in an existing public middle school in a gritty North Memphis neighborhood. It was one of the first charter schools in Memphis, championed by the local Hyde Foundation and aimed at attracting underperforming students from throughout the city. It was an exciting new option for parents in a city school system where only 6 percent of high school graduates are deemed college ready. The people at KIPP Memphis wanted to make a difference, and they did. In 2010, of the school’s entering class of fifth graders, 90 percent were at the bottom half of their peer group in math and 87 percent were in the lower half in reading. By comparison, 91 percent of eighth graders--who were preparing to graduate from KIPP Memphis--were in the top half of their peer group in math and 71 percent were in the top half of the peer group in reading. In a nation where 40 percent of low-income students enroll in college, 85 percent of KIPP’s graduates go on to college. “Our goal,” says Jamal McCall, executive director at KIPP Memphis, “is to get kids on grade level by the time they leave our school and be on the path to college.”

KIPP DIAMOND Academy in Memphis is part of a nationwide network of KIPP charter schools, each operated and funded autonomously, and widely considered one of the top networks of charter schools in the United States. That’s no small issue. Today, according to Waiting for Superman, a 2010 documentary that explores the crisis in public education and the promise of charter schools, only one out of five charter schools is achieving amazing results--dramatically improving performance among low-income students. KIPP academies are consistently among them.

Charter Schools Today

The charter school movement got its start in the early nineties, after numerous studies demonstrated that the U.S. school system was falling behind those of most other industrialized countries. The school-choice movement springs from two distinct impulses: One is the concept of introducing “choice” into the public education system, an idea that first surfaced in the writings of free-market economist Milton Friedman in the 1950s and that inspired the school voucher movement of the 1980s. The second impulse came from education reformers, particularly within the African-American community. Their goal was to provide innovative, community-based schools for high-poverty students who are failed by the nation’s public school system. The convergence of these two forces helped provide the impetus for the modern charter schools movement.

Much like school vouchers, charter schools are viewed as a way of applying free-market principles to the challenges facing public education. Theoretically, charter schools would put competitive pressure on traditional public schools to improve--because their very existence gives parents the freedom to choose another option. Whether that strategy has worked has been widely debated among economists. And, overall, charter schools have not proven to be the solution to the education crisis. But there is ample evidence--in the form of results from individual charter schools--that some charter schools can and do significantly improve school performance among low-income, African-American, and other historically underserved students.

In 1991, Minnesota became the first state to enact a charter school law, and it built the first charter school in 1992. By 2010, there were 5,453 charter schools either open or slated to open in the United States and more than 1.7 million U.S. students enrolled in those schools. Typically founded by parents, educators, entrepreneurs, and community groups who see a real need for improvement in their community, charter schools are controlled by a contract--a charter--between a state authority (e.g., a state university or state school board) and the governing board of the charter school. The board is similar to a conventional school board; it is publicly accountable for performing at the level the state requires. But charter school boards operate independently of district boards of education. In some respects, charters resemble private schools--in that they may have smaller class sizes than conventional public schools and have their own, unique educational programs. But as public schools, they must by law have a fair and open admission process. Most students are admitted on a first-come, first-served basis or by lottery where there are more applicants than available slots. The laws governing charter schools vary from state to state. The Center for Education Reform (CER), which promotes and monitors charter schools, publishes an annual scorecard ranking state charter laws on a number of variables, including school autonomy and funding equity. According to CER’s 2011 rankings, Washington, DC, with just over 100 charter schools, has the best overall charter school law. Laws can also determine which students are eligible to apply. In Tennessee, for example, the original law allowed only low-performing students or students slated to attend low-performing schools to apply to charter schools like KIPP Memphis. In 2010, Tennessee changed its charter school law, extending eligibility to all high-poverty students, regardless of their prior performance.

Designed to shake up the conventional public school system, charter schools were created as child-centered learning environments. “They offer flexibility that is not generally able to be implemented in a conventional public school, specifically in available instruction methods (direct instruction or exponential learning or Montessori, for example) used to create an environment that’s good for children,” says CER president Jeanne Allen. “Parents can see what their options are and what would work best for their child. Charters service kids who have not been well served by the system in the past.” Those might include gifted, at-risk, minority, low-income, and special needs students.

The Debate over Charter Schools

Accountability is one of the cornerstones of the charter school movement. And, given that they operate outside the traditional public school systems, charter schools are held to high standards and measure performance relentlessly. Nationwide, results from the first charter school experiments were generally positive, suggesting that they were outperforming traditional schools. But as the number of charter schools continued to grow, the results became less consistent. In August 2004, a new set of findings began to emerge, when the American Federation of Teachers announced that, based on analysis of results from the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress, charter school students nationally performed worse in math and reading than their public school counterparts.

In its Fall 2010 issue, National Affairs published an article by Frederick Hess entitled “Does School Choice ‘Work’?” that reviewed the litany of studies on charter school performance that have emerged in the late 2000s. According to that article

  • a 2009 study by the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes found a “wide variation in performance” among charter schools;
  • a 2010 report by the Institute of Education Sciences found charter schools, on average, to be “neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior, and school progress.” The report made a clear distinction: “... charter schools serving more low-income or low-achieving students had statistically significant positive effects on math test
  • scores, while charter schools serving more advantaged students--those with higher income and prior achievement--had significant negative effects on math scores”;
  • a 2009 study of New York City students by Caroline Hoxby, an economist at Stanford University, looked at students in charter schools versus those in traditional schools. The findings were as follows: students that attend a charter school from grades K-8 would “substantially outperform” their
  • district counterparts;
  • a 2009 study of Boston students in middle school and high school, conducted by Harvard economist Thomas Kane, reported “large positive effects for charter schools”;
  • and in 2010, Mathematica Policy Research did a study of the KIPP system and found that if a child enters a KIPP middle school in the fifth grade (which is when it starts), by seventh grade “half of the KIPP schools evaluated showed growth in math scores equal to an additional 1.2 years of schooling.” The bottom line--KIPP academy’s students “significantly outperformed similar public school students in both reading and math.”

“The positive findings from New York, Boston, and KIPP should not be too surprising,” writes Frederick Hess in National Affairs. “Students who switch from troubled schools to high-quality charter alternatives are likely to benefit--especially in cities like Boston and New York, where caps on charter schooling and an abundance of talented charter operators have produced a rich crop of terrific schools. By the same token, however, proponents of market-based school reform should not be surprised that the results may look very different in other environments. The debate about “choice,” Hess argues, has been inspired in part by “a tendency to vastly overpromise.”

Indeed, in December 2010, when the Ross Global Academy in New York City was listed among the 12 charter schools that would be closed by the city that year, reporter Sharon Otterman wrote this epitaph in the New York Times: “The Ross Global Academy opened five years ago on a raft of promises, like an innovative curriculum that would spiral through different historical eras, small class sizes, yoga, Mandarin lessons, an extended day and organic food prepared by a chef … But on Monday, Ross Global became a cautionary tale for the city’s well-heeled charter backers, among 12 schools the city announced it would seek to close this year for poor performance.”

What the research seems to show is this: just like public schools, some are good, some not so good, and some are downright bad. “It’s not the type of school that makes a school great. It’s the leadership,” says Jamal McCall of KIPP Memphis. “And if a charter is done correctly, it can be a great way to improve schools.” Some charter schools achieve impressive results--particularly in addressing the needs of historically underserved students. The KIPP system--where schools incorporate a high level of discipline, extended school days, a shortened summer, and, in the case of KIPP Memphis, “fun” into the academic program--is one example of a successful approach. Charter schools such as Chicago’s Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men and New York’s Eagle Academy, which focus on educating black males and reversing historically high dropout rates, represent other good examples. At New York’s Eagle Academy, which takes pride in its emphasis on hiring black male teachers and mentors, 80 percent of the school’s students stay with the program and graduate.

The Funding Issue

Charter schools face a unique set of funding challenges. While they receive public financing, it is often not commensurate with the funding provided to public schools. For example, KIPP Memphis received about $7,600 per student from the city school budget during the 2010-2011 academic year for its middle school program. Memphis’ public middle schools received $10,000 per pupil. According to CER, in November of 2009, support from the public coffers for charter schools was averaging, nationwide, 61 percent of what the conventional public schools were receiving--$6,585 per pupil compared to $10,771 per pupil for public schools.

Why the disparity in per-student allotments? “That’s the way charter schools laws were enacted in the early 1990s,” says Mary Kayne Heinze, CER media relations director. “Charters are supposed to be leaner and meaner, expected to do more with less. I think that was the initial logic behind putting the funding so low. Now we realize that while they tend to spend less than the schools in their host district, they still need more money than that in order to have quality teachers.” KIPP Memphis depends on its board of directors, local donors, grants, and the funding from the Hyde Foundation to make up the significant shortfall between the cost of the program and the public allotment--a shortfall of $1,000 to $1,500 per pupil per year (as of 2011, the school has 400 students). During the school’s early years, KIPP Memphis paid the city $376,000 per year to lease those two corridors in the public school where they operated until 2010. And teacher salaries at KIPP Memphis are higher than those of Memphis city schools, in part because of the longer school day and school year at KIPP. The school has moved to a new building and has plans to add elementary and high school programs. By 2015, their goal is to have 10 KIPP schools in the Memphis area.

KIPP DIAMOND Academy is thriving. But not every charter school has a philanthropic foundation behind it. Many charter schools face funding challenges that continue year after year. California offers a charter school revolving loan fund. Grants, private and corporate donations, and other government funds are often combined to meet a charter school’s funding needs. Some schools and communities turn to private venture funds and consultants that serve as liaisons with banks and other financial institutions. To survive, good charter schools often need advocates in their communities--to support their interests in dealing with resistant school systems; to help them negotiate leases, locate buildings, and find classroom space; and, in some cases, to address counterproductive state charter laws.