By Paul Buchheit
In early 2015 Stanford University’s updated CREDO Report concluded that “urban charter schools in the aggregate provide significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading compared to their TPS peers.”
This single claim of success has a lot of people believing that charter schools really work. But there are good reasons to be skeptical. First of all, CREDO is funded and managed by reform advocates. It’s part of the Hoover Institution, a conservative and pro-business think tank funded in part by the Walton Foundation, and in partnership with Pearson, a leading developer of standardized testing materials. CREDO director Margaret Raymond is pro-charter and a free-market advocate.
The 2015 CREDO study received much of its input, according to a Louisiana source, from the New Orleans Recovery School District and charter promoter New Schools for New Orleans, who together had “embarked on a bold, five-year journey to standardize, validate and export the New Orleans charter restart model…addressing the problem of failing schools by restarting them with schools operated by charter operators.”
Regarding national findings, a review of the CREDO study by the National Education Policy Center questioned CREDO’s statistical methods: for example, the study excluded public schools that do NOT send students to charters, thus “introducing a bias against the best urban public schools.”
Charters Are Underperforming
The inadequacies of charter schools have been confirmed by other recent studies, one of them by CREDO itself, which found that in comparison to traditional public schools “students in Ohio charter schools perform worse in both reading and mathematics.” Another recent CREDO study of California schools reached mixed results, with charters showing higher scores in reading but lower scores in math.
In a study of Chicago’s public schools, the University of Minnesota Law School determined that “Sadly the charter schools, which on average score lower that the Chicago public schools, have not improved the Chicago school system, but perhaps made it even weaker.”
In general, as concluded by the nonpartisan Spencer Foundation and Public Agenda, “There is very little evidence that charter and traditional public schools differ meaningfully in their average impact on students’ standardized test performance.” Another report from Data First, part of the Center for Public Education, stated that “the majority of charter schools do no better or worse than traditional public schools.”
But there’s a lot of data that leans toward “worse” rather than “better.” A Brookings report showed underperformance in Arizona’s charter schools. An In the Public Interest group found that an analyst for the District of Columbia “could not provide a single instance in which its strategy of transferring a low-performing school to a charter management organization had resulted in academic gains for the students.” The Minnesota Star Tribune reported that “Students in most Minnesota charter schools are failing to hit learning targets and are not achieving adequate academic growth.” Over 85 percent of Ohio’s charter students were in schools graded D or F in 2012–2013. In the much-heralded New Orleans charter experiment, the Investigative Fund found that “eight years after Hurricane Katrina…seventy-nine percent of RSD charters are still rated D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education.”
Charters Won’t Tell Us What They’re Doing
Performance aside, charters have other serious issues. The Nation called them “stunningly opaque…black boxes.” Indeed, the federal government has spent billions on charter development without basic forms of accountability, even for the causes and details of school closings. The charter system is so unregulated that oversight often comes from whistleblowers who feel disturbed enough, and courageous enough, to report abuses.
The report Cashing in on Kids notes that the Walton Foundation, one of the biggest charter school supporters, has “supported the unregulated growth of a privatized education industry.” The Walton-funded New York Charter School Association, which takes considerable public money and advertises itself as “independently-run public schools,” refused state audits, arguing that they were run by boards outside the public domain. Charter operators want the best of both worlds. As Diane Ravitch explains, “When it is time for funds to be distributed, they want to be considered public schools. But when they are involved in litigation, charter operators insist they are private organizations.”
Many Charter Systems Are Mired in Fraud
According to Integrity in Education, $100 million (ballooning in the past year to $200 million) in taxpayer money was lost, misused, or wasted in just 15 of the 42 states that have charter schools. The abuses are well documented. The report states: “Charter operators have used school funds illegally to buy personal luxuries for themselves, support their other businesses, and more.”
Mounds of evidence reveal the fraud in states around the country: Schoolchildren defrauded in Pennsylvania; “out-of-control” charters in Michigan and Florida; rampant misspending in Ohio; bribes and kickbacks, also in Ohio; revenues directed to a for-profit company in Buffalo, NY; subpoenas for mismanaged charters in Connecticut.
In California alone, $100 million in fraud losses are expected in 2015. The California Charter Schools Association noted in response that the “charter school sector, authorizers and legislators have come together to put into place real solutions.” The solutions were not cited.
In a Nutshell: Charter Schools Are Failing
While there’s little difference in the overall performance of charter schools and public schools, charters are riddled with fraud and identified with a lack of transparency that leads to more fraud.
In a Nutshell: Public Education Is Working
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has confirmed that math and reading skills have improved for all levels of public school students since the 1970s, with the greatest gains among minority and disadvantaged students. Other results indicate that our schools achieve even greater success when properly funded.
But the education reformers, who have a lot of money but little knowledge of the real world of education, don’t want to provide that funding. They frighten America with words from people like Rupert Murdoch: “The failure rates of our public schools represent a tragic waste of human capital that is making America less competitive.”
A better reason for fright is the rapid progress made by the charter school reformers. They want our children to be their human capital.