Monday, September 15, 2014

Debunking the myths about charter schools

By Maggie Thurber | Franklin Center School Choice Fellow

Graphic courtesy of National Alliance for
 Public Charter schools
Students around the nation have begun their 2014-15 school year and many of them are at charters schools – a school of choice.

But even though charter schools have been around for a while now, there are quite a number of myths about them that deserve to be debunked.

The biggest – and some think the most important one – is that charter schools are not public.

Actually, they are. They’re public schools, the same as traditional school districts operate, though they have been released from certain requirements in order to provide innovation and creativity in the way they teach.

They are not private schools either.

And despite what you may have heard otherwise, the support for charters is growing.

According to a recent PDK/Gallup poll, “(s)even of 10 Americans support public charter schools, particularly when they’re described as schools that can operate independently and free of regulations.”

That’s huge!

But there’s a problem.

PDK/Gallup conducts this polling annually, so they’re able to track opinions over time. Concerned that the description “schools that can operate independently and free of regulations” might be presenting a bias in the question, they decided to ask the question without the descriptor this year.

What they found shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Support for charter schools declined when no descriptor was included, leading the pollsters to conclude that “(m)ost Americans misunderstand charter schools.” And it declined in all groups asked: nationally, public school parents, Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

The poll also tried to determine what, exactly, the participants know about charter schools.

In 2006, 53 percent thought that charter schools were not public. In 2014, 50 percent think they are, but 48 percent still believe they aren’t.

In 2006, 50 percent thought the charter schools could teach religion. By 2014, the number who thought that was true was still high at 48 percent.

In 2006, 60 percent thought charter schools could charge tuition. In 2014, 57 percent still believe that.

Perhaps the most startling result was that 68 percent think charter schools can select students on the basis of their abilities. This is up from 58 percent in 2006.

None of those are true. Charter schools are public, they can’t teach religion, they don’t charge tuition and they cannot discriminate.

Based upon these results, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools decided to embark on a campaign, The Truth About Charters, to help educate the public and, hopefully, see the results of their efforts in future PDK/Gallup polls.

Katherine Bathgate, the director of communications and marketing for NAPCS, said she wished the misconceptions about charter schools were not as high as they were.

“That’s why we’re doing the work we are now,” she said. “It’s why we’re trying to get the word out about charter schools and how they function in the community.”

She’s careful to always refer to them as public charter schools, not just ‘charter schools’ to help address the false idea that they are not public schools and not private schools.

She said she is baffled as to why some believe public charters can discriminate in their selection of students.

“Some inaccurately claim that charter schools can skim or pick the best students,” she said. “They’re tuition free, must accept all students and if more students apply than they have seats for, they must conduct a lottery to see who gets to attend.”

She speculated that perhaps it’s an excuse for why public charters are performing better in general, “because it can’t be the curriculum, structure, or anything else that’s different,” she said.

Except that’s exactly what’s different and enables public charters to tailor their education to the individual needs of the student.

But do they all perform better?

Not all of them, just like not all traditional public schools are bad, she explained, but a great many do.

“Since 2010 there have been numerous research studies and all but one shows that charter school students outperform their public school peers,” Bathgate said. “Sometimes public charters do serve a larger percent of disadvantaged students, especially those who have achievement gaps – sometimes two to three years behind. Data shows that they’re able to close that gap.”

And what about those low-performing charters? In Ohio, some claim that parents are pulling their kids out of good traditional public schools only to send them to a bad public charter.

Bathgate thinks parents should make responsible decisions about the best educational opportunity for their child, but thinks it’s odd that so many worry about poorly-performing public charters, but not poorly-performing traditional public schools.

What about the parents who have no choice but to send their child to a D- or F-graded traditional school just because it’s the only option in their zip code?

“We advocate for strong oversight and accountability – freedom and autonomy in exchange for results,” she said. “And if that’s not being met, it needs to be addressed immediately for the sake of the students. I think it’s important to judge how a school is performing overall, but public charter schools are a school of choice and parents should have the right and opportunity to (find) the public charter school that fits the schedule or the interest of their student.”

The bottom line, she said, is parental choice and the best education for the child.

“Want to make sure that students go to a well-performing school,” she said, “but in the big picture, want to raise the bar for both charters and traditional public schools.”

That’s a goal everyone should be able to agree upon.

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