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Time to Stop and Rethink Charter Schools

by Gary Miron - November 26, 2008

The commentary contains a brief overview of the original goals of charter school reforms and summarizes evidence regarding these goals. The case is made that charter schools are currently being used to pursue goals other than those originally intended and that policymakers should revisit the goals and intended purpose of charter schools. Recommendations are included to cap the growth of charter schools until these schools serve their intended purpose and until independent research indicates that they perform better than demographically matched traditional public schools.

Charter schools were created as a new form of public school that—in exchange for autonomy—would be highly accountable. They would improve upon traditional public schools in two ways: by developing and sharing innovative practices, and by promoting competition. Charter schools won considerable bipartisan support and became one of the most prevalent school reforms visible over the last two decades. Today there are around 4,000 charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia, enrolling close to one million students.

Yet after two decades and substantial growth, the charter school idea has strayed considerably from its original vision.

Original Goals of Charter Schools

A growing body of research including state and federal evaluations conducted by independent researchers has shown that charter schools are not achieving the goals that were once envisioned for them.1

Charter schools are nonsectarian public schools of choice free from many regulations that apply to traditional public schools. The specific goals for charter schools are typically found in legislative acts. Yet while highly touted in the 1990s, these goals are rarely mentioned today:


Empower local actors and communities. Involvement of local persons or groups in starting charter schools is shrinking, replaced instead by outsiders, particularly private education management organizations (EMOs), which steer these schools from distant corporate headquarters. Claims that EMOs can make charter schools more effective have not been substantiated by research.


Enhance opportunities for parent involvement. Parents who choose schools can be expected to be more engaged, presumably leading to higher student achievement and other positive outcomes. Evidence suggests that parent satisfaction is one of the strengths of charter schools. Most of this evidence, however, is based on surveys of parents whose children remain in charter schools and excludes parents whose children have left these schools. Nevertheless, the fact that charter schools are growing in size and number is a strong indication of the demand that still exists for charter schools.


Create new opportunities for school choice with open access for all. Charter schools are schools of choice. With few exceptions, they are open to students from any district or locale. Advocates argue that the very act of choice will spur students, parents, and teachers to work harder to support the schools they have chosen. Evidence, however, suggests that charters attract and enroll groups sorted by race, class, and ability.


Develop innovations in curriculum and instruction. Proponents argued that charter schools could function as public education’s R&D sector, and their benefits would extend to traditional public schools that adopted and emulated their innovations. Evidence to date, however, suggests that charter schools are not more likely than traditional public schools to innovate.


Enhance professional autonomy and opportunities for professional development for teachers. Allowing teachers to choose schools closely matching their own beliefs and interests was to create school communities that spent less time managing stakeholder conflicts and more time implementing effective educational interventions. Although some charter schools have created and fostered professional opportunities for teachers, the overall evidence on this goal does not suggest that this has been realized. High levels of teacher attrition suggest teachers are not finding suitable professional learning communities in charter schools.


Create high performing schools where children would learn more. Notwithstanding pressure for performance on state assessments, the growing body of evidence indicates charter schools perform similarly to demographically matched traditional public schools on standardized tests. This is so despite exceptions that can be found in every state.


Create highly accountable schools. In exchange for enhanced autonomy over curriculum, instruction, and operations, charter schools agree to be held more accountable for results than other public schools. Schools that fail to meet performance objectives can have their charter revoked or not renewed (performance accountability); schools that don’t satisfy parents may lose students and, in theory, go out of business (market accountability). Yet closure rates are relatively low, and most charter schools that close do so because of financial mismanagement, rather than performance or market accountability. The burden of producing evidence regarding charter school success has shifted to external evaluators or authorizers. Charter schools—on the whole—have not been proactive with regard to accountability; instead of being “evaluating” schools, they have become “evaluated” schools.

Reasons Why Goals for Charter Schools Have Not Been Achieved

Why this overall lackluster performance?


Lack of effective oversight and insufficient accountability. Many authorizers lack funds for oversight and some of them are unprepared and—in some cases—unwilling to be sponsors of charter schools. A key factor that undermines effective oversight is that objectives in charter contracts are vague, incomplete, and unmeasurable. In recent years, more attention has been given to the role and importance of authorizers, which may have an impact.


Insufficient autonomy.  Re-regulation and standardization driven by NCLB and state assessments are limiting autonomy. Requirements that charter schools administer the same standardized tests and have the same performance standards as traditional public schools means that they cannot risk developing and using new curricular materials.


Insufficient funding. The financial viability of charter schools is dependent on the state, on how facilities are funded, and on the particular needs of the students served. Some charter schools maintain large year-end balances thanks to less costly-to-educate students or extensive private revenues; others are clearly underfunded for the types of students they serve or because they lack social capital to attract outside resources, or both. Funding formulae vary by state, but it is fair to say that if charter schools are expected to innovate, they need more funding, not just greater autonomy.


Privatization and pursuit of profits. The increasing numbers of private operators may bring expertise or experience, but they also glean high management fees and tend to spend less on instruction—and reports continue to show that EMO-operated schools perform less well than non-EMO operated schools. There are some emerging nonprofit EMO models that may prove to be more effective.


Strong and effective lobbying and advocacy groups for charter schools quickly reinterpret research and shape the message to fit their needs rather than the long-term interests of the movement. They attack evidence that questions the performance of charter schools and offer anecdotal evidence, rarely substantiated by technical reports, in rebuttal. Such lobbying has undermined reasoned discourse and made improving charter schools more difficult.


High attrition of teachers and administrators, ranging from 15 to 30 percent, leads to greater instability and lost investment. Attrition from the removal of ineffective teachers—a potential plus of charters—explains only a small portion of the annual exodus.


Rapid growth of reforms. In states that implemented and expanded their charter school reforms too quickly, charter schools have faced a backlash as shortcomings in oversight and other neglected aspects of the reform become apparent. The states that have grown their reforms more slowly have been able to learn from early mistakes and establish better oversight mechanisms.

Questions Policy Makers Should be Asking

Can we create better public schools through de-regulation and demands for greater accountability? How are charter schools using the opportunity provided them? The answers to these questions require comprehensive evaluations—resisting the dodge that every charter school is its own reform and should be looked at separately. More specific questions that policy makers should be asking include:


How can charter school laws be revised to create more accountable schools?


Can funding formulae be revised to ensure that charter schools serving the neediest students receive sufficient funding, motivating more charters to attract and retain more-costly-to-educate students, such as high school students, those with special needs, and those living in poverty?


How can incentives and regulations be used to ensure poorly performing charter schools will be closed?


Are there better uses for public resources than charter schools—smaller class size, increased teacher remuneration or incentives, increased oversight of public schools, support to restructure struggling or failing district schools, etc.?

Even as the original goals for charter schools are largely ignored, charter schools fulfill other purposes.

Charter schools have provided an easy route for privatization as many states allow private schools to convert to public charter schools, and all but a few states allow charter schools to contract all or part of their services to private education management organizations. About one-quarter of all charter schools are operated by for-profit or nonprofit education management companies, and in states such as Michigan, close to 80% of charter schools are privately operated. Claims regarding privatization remain ideological and rhetorical, unsupported by a body of evidence. The current economic crisis has shown that our economy requires greater public oversight and regulations, a finding that can be reasonably extended to markets in education.

State evaluations find that charter schools seem to accelerate the re-segregation of public schools by race, class, and ability, instead of creating homogeneous learning communities based on particular learning styles or pedagogical approaches.

President-elect Barak Obama has indicated that his administration would continue to support charter schools and hopes to double federal funding for them. If privatization and segregation are not outcomes that the Obama administration wishes to pursue, it would be wise to consider how federal funding can be used to persuade states to revise their charter school reforms. Federal and state policy makers need to revisit the goals and intended purpose of charter schools, clearly articulating values and anticipated outcomes.

It is time to stop and rethink charter schools. First, there needs to be a cap on the number of charter schools allowed to operate. This should include restrictions on an increasingly common practice in which existing charter schools open new schools/campuses under the same charter. This does not have to be a moratorium, since closing schools would allow more charters to be granted.

Second, authorities need to move more aggressively to close poor-performing charter schools. This will strengthen charter school reforms in three ways: lifting the aggregate results for charters that remain; sending a strong message to other charter schools that the autonomy for accountability trade-off is real; and redirecting media attention from a few scandal-ridden schools toward successful charter schools.

Finally, once independent evaluations establish that charter schools are successful in pursuing the intended goals and when—as a whole—they are performing better than demographically similar traditional public schools, caps can be lifted.

Although these suggestions may be seen as antagonistic by the charter school establishment, they will help improve and strengthen charter schools in the longer run. The charter school idea was to create a better system of schools, not divide limited public resources across parallel systems that perform at similar levels and suffer from similar breaches in accountability. Charter schools can be returned to their original vision: to serve as a lever of change, spurring public schools to improve both by example and through competition. But if they are to do so, they must be better than traditional public schools, and they must be held accountable for their performance.


1. Many studies and reports prepared by the author are cited and linked on the following Web page:  http://www.wmich.edu/evalctr/charter/.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 26, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15453, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 7:28:31 AM

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About the Author
  • Gary Miron
    Western Michigan University
    E-mail Author
    GARY MIRON is a Professor of Education at Western Michigan University. He has been involved in a large portion of the independent research and evaluation regarding charter schools. He has provided technical assistance to charter schools in 5 states and led 9 comprehensive state evaluations of charter school reforms as well as a multiyear federally-funded project that examined the correlates of successful charter schools. Evidence from his work has both supported and questioned charter schools depending on the state and issue. Over the past decade he has published a book as well as several articles and chapters that synthesize the growing body of evidence on charter schools.
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