In the Public Interest
Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, were originally conceived of as a means of developing new education methods. While effective charter schools exist—as do effective traditional, neighborhood public schools—that original intent has increasingly been co-opted into a market-based model of education with winners and losers. The number of charter schools has grown steadily since humble beginnings. Each year from 1993 to 2009, the number of charter schools increased from 10 percent to 15 percent. During the 2017-18 school year, more than 7,000 charter schools enrolled nearly 3.2 million students. This growth has increasingly been concentrated in urban areas. Between the 2011-12 and 2016-17 school years, the number of majority black and/or Latinx charter school districts increased 27 percent, while majority white charter school districts grew by only 10 percent. The charter school industry is also increasingly consolidating. About 4 in 10 charter schools nationally are managed under contract by for-profit or nonprofit chains of multiple schools. In many cities, rapid charter school growth and consolidation is creating parallel school systems where charter schools are in competition with neighborhood public schools. This has pitted a growing charter school industry backed by wealthy funders and charter school parents against neighborhood school parents, teachers, and district leaders, making charter schools a highly contested issue nationwide.
Research on charter schools has long focused on comparing academic performance between charter and neighborhood school students but has come to no clear conclusions. Study after study shows that charter schools generally perform about the same academically as neighborhood schools.1 In fact, given concerns about biased selection/administration processes, such as the effective exclusion of special education students or the expulsion of students with perceived disciplinary issues, charter school success often can be overstated. For example, a 2016 study by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU) found that over 20 percent of California’s charter schools—some 253 schools—had discriminatory enrollment policies, such as making enrollment conditional on parent donations or volunteer hours.2 Additionally, charter schools face many of the same societal inequities as neighborhood schools, such as a focus on standardized testing, teacher biases, exclusion of meaningful relationships with parents, etc.
Beyond test scores, a growing body of research is beginning to measure the economic impact of charter school growth on public school districts. Studies by a variety of institutions and authors nationwide all share a similar finding: school districts and the students they serve are undermined by laws and practices that prioritize charter school growth over educational opportunities for all public school students.3 This is because when a student leaves a neighborhood public school for a charter school, their prorated share of funding leaves with them, while the school district remains responsible for many costs that those funds supported. This intensifies financial pressure on school districts to cut core services like counseling, libraries, and special education, and increase class sizes. This interruption to school budgets could even put neighborhood public schools at risk for closure. In a 2018 analysis of three California school districts, the research center In the Public Interest directly measured the cost of charter schools and found that the state’s allowance of a virtually unlimited number of charter schools was costing the districts tens of millions of dollars a year.4 Charter schools cost Oakland Unified School District, which has the highest concentration of charter schools in the state, $57.3 million during the 2016-17 school year. Prior studies with comparable methodologies performed in Nashville, Los Angeles, Michigan, and Pennsylvania all found similar results. States such as California have begun to consider charter school reform that protects neighborhood public school students from the unintended costs of charter school expansion. Such reform will become more crucial in the years to come as the number of charter schools nationwide grows.
Studies also show that charter schools are more segregated than neighborhood schools. Research by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project found that charter schools are more racially isolated than neighborhood public schools in virtually every state and large metropolitan area in the nation.5 As a whole, charter schools stratify students by race, class, and, possibly, language. In all types of schools, increased segregation is linked with low education performance levels. In 2016, the NAACP called for a moratorium on the expansion of the charter schools, citing concerns about segregation, among other issues, and affirming the organization’s support for neighborhood public schools.
Finally, some charter schools use harsh discipline and suspension practices, especially those in communities with large proportions of students of color. A 2016 analysis examining charter schools in New York City, Boston, and Washington, DC, found that charter schools consistently topped the list of schools with the highest suspension rates.6 Furthermore, nearly all these hyper- disciplinary schools were concentrated in majority-black communities. Additionally, research by the UCLA Civil Rights Project found that in the 2011-12 school year, nearly half of all black secondary charter school students in the country attended charter schools where the aggregate black suspension rate was 25 percent. More than 500 charter schools suspended black charter students at a rate that was at least 10 percentage points higher than that of white charter students.
As the number of charter schools increases, especially in urban school districts, policy must focus on: 1) protecting neighborhood school students from the unintended consequences of charter school growth, and 2) increasing transparency in charter school disciplinary practices, enrollment policies, and budgeting policies and practices.
Examples of Best Policy/Practice
In the Public Interest’s Public School Accountability Agenda National Education Association (NEA) Charter School Report Card Public Accountability for Charter Schools
How charter schools drain money from public school districts (video)
Jeremy Mohler, Communications Director
In the Public Interest
- ACLU Southern California, “Unequal Access: How Some California Charter Schools Illegally Restrict Enrollment,” July 31, 2016.
- U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General, “Nationwide Assessment of Charter and Education Management Organizations,” September 2016.
- In the Public Interest. (February, 2018). Research Brief: How charter schools impact public school district budgets.
- UCLA Civil Rights Project, “Choice Without Equity: Charter School Segregation and the Need for Civil Rights Standards,” January 2010.
- Joseph, G. & CityLab. (September, 2016). “Where Charter-School Suspensions Are Concentrated,” The Atlantic.