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Not A Fair Fight: An Evaluation of the Impact of Charter Schools

April 24, 2017
In American public discourse, charter schools remain a highly controversial and politicized issue. Those in favor, such as Senator Cory Booker, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, and Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz, point to charter schools as a welcome alternative to the mismanagement of public schools. Many others, including both NYU Professor Diane Ravitch and former Philadelphia School Reform Commissioner, see charter schools as beneficial for few but detrimental to many others.

Both perspectives, however, neglect to address the broader issues of inequality and disparities in the public system. Charter schools go no further in ameliorating education disparities because they do not contain a systematic assault on poverty. Furthermore, they are inherently harmful to public schools and students.

From the Ashes- The Successes of the Charter Movement

The popularity of charter schools arose from the profound dissatisfaction with public education’s seemingly unsolvable problems of waste, corruption, and insufficient focus on teacher performance and retention. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser states, “cities succeed by encouraging competition and diverse innovations. Public school monopolies destroy both of those advantages.” [1]

Eva Moskowitz, founder of the Success Academy charter network in New York, turned to charter schools after trying, first as a private citizen and teacher, then as a member of the Education Committee on the New York City Council, to solve the issues plaguing the city’s Department of Education. She had found that it was practically impossible to work within the system, given the combination of resistant teachers’ unions and an entrenched bureaucracy. Thus, she turned away from the public system and began her own charter school. In 2013, her students outscored public and other charter students in math and English proficiencies, as measured through test scores; some schools even beat out students in the most affluent suburbs.[2]

Senator Cory Booker experienced a similar frustration during his time on the Newark City Council, on which be served in 1998. He found that public schools were hindered by a lack of competition and thus a lack of motivation to improve. As a result, when he became a New Jersey Senator, he partnered with Governor Chris Christie and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to devise a plan to shake up the Newark School District by introducing more charter schools. Booker’s program, however, did not meet with the same success as Moskowitz’s Success Academy and ran into many roadblocks along the way to implementation. [3]

Achievement for the Few, but at What Cost?

Critics do acknowledge that charter schools have had some success, although they claim that the schools have a demographic advantage––they have lower numbers of students with special needs, and thus the performance of their student bodies is not entirely analogous to their public counterparts. [4] [5] Furthermore, Professor Diane Ravitch of New York University, a fierce opponent of Eva Moskowitz, contends that “[the proliferation of charter schools] undermines the public’s commitment to public education” and therefore public commitment to the equal education of all. [6]

On the other hand, Joe Dworetzky, a former School Reform Commissioner for the city of Philadelphia, argues against charters from an economic standpoint. In evaluating Glaeser’s belief that charters act as a competitor to motivate public schools to improve, he points out that this theory does not work in practice because charters take money away from public schools, leaving them less equipped for success:

If the [Philadelphia School] District spends $10,000 per student on the all-in costs of education, when a student in a District-run school leaves to attend a charter school, the District must pay the charter school $10,000 for that student over the school year. In order for the District to avoid a negative financial consequence, the District must reduce its costs by $10,000. However, it isn’t easy to shed costs: Some costs are variable (they vary with the student), but many are fixed or semi-variable (they don’t vary or they are slow to vary). Historically, the District has been able to shed only about $4,500 in costs per student, meaning that the net loss to the District when the student transfers is $5,500, a huge loss. [7]

These deficits create tremendous problems in an already financially unviable system, thus rendering the economic argument for charters invalid. Instead of encouraging competition, Dworetzky believes charter schools leave districts completely unable to function.

A Broader Perspective

After evaluating each side, it is evident that there is something missing from each argument, as neither addresses the root cause of the inequality: poverty. For example, these disparities are amplified in the Philadelphia region. According to Temple University Professor Carolyn Adams, “Compared to many other states, Pennsylvania and New Jersey provide a smaller percentage of K-12 expenditures. The school districts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey rely on property taxes to pay school costs, a practice that gives rise to sharp inequalities.” [8]
One of the most prominent critics of the now infamous Booker-Christie-Zuckerberg strategy, Ras Baraka, a former educator and current mayor of Newark, argued that the plan was doomed because it contained no comprehensive assault on poverty. [9] Charter schools do not achieve much more than internal restructuring for this very reason. Until school reformers approach the issue from a wider perspective, they will make no serious inroads to improving public schools; society must also invest on ameliorating poverty in these neighborhoods as well.

Poverty creates educational difficulties for learning; many students come to school with empty stomachs and without necessary school supplies. Thus, from the moment they arrive, they are already behind. Of course, there are some programs that work to narrow student poverty and its results, such as free meal programs and after school tutoring. Nonetheless, according to Dale Russakoff of The New Yorker, “Decades of research have shown that experiences at home and in neighborhoods have far more influence on children’s academic achievement than classroom instruction.” [10] Even if schools provide free meals and supplies for their students, they cannot influence the external environment. Governments, however, can. Policy makers need to start viewing education inequalities as one component of social inequity rather than an island unto itself.
Public education may be part of the current problem, but it can be part of the solution.

References 

  [1] Glaeser, Edward. “Conclusion: Flat City, Tall World.” The Triumph of the City. 254. Print.

  [2] Bergner, Daniel. “The Battle for New York Schools: Eva Moskowitz vs. Mayor Bill De Blasio.” The New York Times 3 Sept. 2014: Print.

  [3] Russakoff, Dale. “Schooled.” New Yorker 19 May 2014.

  [4] http://ecs.force.com/mbdata/mbquestNB2?rep=ELL1413

  [5] http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rick_hess_straight_up/2010/11/challenging_the_sacred_status_of_special_ed_spending_voices_from_the_field.html

  [6] Bergner, 7

  [7] http://thenotebook.org/articles/2013/09/19/analyzing-the-role-of-charter-school-funding-in-the-district-s-budget-problems

  [8] Adams, Carolyn Teich, David Bartelt, David Elesh, and Ira Goldstein. “Educational
Opportunity.” Restructuring the Philadelphia Region. 132. Print.

  [9] Russakoff, 28

  [10] Russakoff, 4

 

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