The False Choice
However, charter schools on the whole have not provided the same results of the few excellent charter school networks (CREDO 2013 Report). A short review of the research and opinions on charter schools provides a much less hopeful narrative that the Three Sector approach can effectively create quality change throughout American education.
First, charter schools get to behave like private schools while raiding the public funds. Charter schools, like private schools, aren’t mandated to educate “all” students, comply by “all” academic mandates, or meet “all” professional and state standards for teachers. Public schools may not do this perfectly or well, but they are required by law and in most states through collective bargaining to at least attempt to do so. Likewise, generic research on traditional public schools vs. charter schools shows that there is little to no distinction between learning results.
Second, charter school for-profit networks get rich without oversight and accountability and corruption abounds. The third sector, especially the for-profit networks are allowed to take public money to educate students, but only spend a portion of this money directly on a student’s education in an attempt to turn a profit. If you follow the news on these networks there are a number of investigations in my home city of Chicago alone into the UNO network, the Edison Schools, and a recent FBI raid of Concept Schools amongst others.
Third, charter schools are not accountable. Private schools are accountable to a board of directors, donors, and tuition paying families. Public schools are accountable to taxpayers through an elected board, a local entity like a county board of education, the state government through the state school code, laws and funding models, the federal government through NCLB and funding, and usually a teachers union. The third sector will argue that they are accountable to their charter and that if the school doesn’t meet the charter’s expectations the school will close unlike public schools that seem to last into perpetuity. According to recent research, however, 90% of charter schools don’t meet the requirements of their charter and are allowed to remain in existence and continue to bilk the taxpayer and underfund students’ education.
Last, in the neighborhoods and cities where charter schools expand there is an inevitable decline of private school enrollment, especially Christian and Catholic school enrollment. The response by some Catholic schools (US News article) has been to forfeit their Catholic distinctives in favor of remaining open as pseudo-values based charter schools.
Is there a solution?
In education I have learned it is always easier to be against something than to have an actual solution. First, I do believe there is a better choice, and I do not believe it is the mixed-market progressivism of the Three Sector approach. If the goal is to improve education quality through parent and student choice, the best options and the best results come through voucher programs. Voucher programs allow parents and students to choose from all existing private and public school options, allow schools to retain distinctives, and provide accountability structures that lessen the corruption created by the third sector. Finally, if we are to encourage greater choice options, part of the solution has to be that Christian schools take a more significant look at their own educational outcomes, professional quality, and missional distinctives in an attempt to have a greater impact on the education profession and school choice market.
Erik Ellefsen has served in education for 21 years as a teacher, coach, consultant, Grievance Chairman for the American Federation of Teachers, Dean of Academics at Boston Trinity Academy, and as Principal at Chicago Christian High School. He currently serves as an Academic and College Counselor at Valley Christian High School (San Jose, CA), a Senior Fellow for CACE, a Senior Fellow for Cardus, podcaster for Digical Education, and as Vice President of CCEI. Erik regularly organizes Christian school leadership seminars and speaks on issues pertaining to academic program, student leadership, and organizational development. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.