Friday, March 3, 2017

7 Misconceptions About Charter Schools Clarified at #IQ2USLive Debate

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Our president has shared that education is a civil rights issue of our time. He and his newly appointed Secretary of Education believe the solution is school choice in the form of charter schools and vouchers. While the concept makes sense at face value, when we scratch beneath the surface, it becomes clear that the solution is based on a premise riddled with misconceptions. These misconceptions were brought to light this week during the IQ2S Debate: Are Charter Schools Overrated. The debate was conducted by Intelligence Squared a nonpartisan organization that aims to restore civility, reasoned analysis, and constructive discourse to the often biased media landscape.

At the debate experts presented their case in an effort to help citizens answer the question, “Are charter schools overrated?” As the debate unfolded, several misconceptions the public has about charter schools were addressed. This enabled an online and live audience in New York City to come to an informed decision on issue of school choice.   
These are the seven misconceptions addressed at the debate.
  1. Charter and public schools serve similar numbers of students with special needs and limited English proficiency
  2. Charter schools outperform public schools
  3. Charter schools are more innovative than traditional public schools
  4. Charter schools are a good solution for all children
  5. School choice is a civil rights issue
  6. Charter schools were created to help privatize education
  7. Public schools need rules and regulations that charter schools don’t
Interested to learn more about why each belief is a misconception? Read on.
  1. Charter and public schools serve similar numbers of students with special needs and limited English proficiency
    Gerard Robinson  is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute working on education policy issues including school choice. He explained that he opened a charter school so, he knows first hand that students with special needs and those who don’t speak English well are there. He cited numbers from the 2011 - 12 School & Staffing Survey from National Center for Education Statistics (page 6) that say that about 10 percent of the students in charter schools are students with special needs. The report says about 12 percent for traditional schools. Limited English proficiency about 9 percent for traditional public and 10 percent for charters.

    Julian Vasquez Heilig, an award-winning teacher, researcher, and blogger who currently serves as a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at California State University, Sacramento explained that when you eyeball national or statewide data, traditional public schools and charter schools look fairly similar in the percentages. However, he explained that as outlined in his recently published piece in the Stanford Law and Policy Review, using geospatial analysis, what they found out was that special education and students with limited English proficiency are less likely, statistically, to be enrolled in charter schools. This means that data across a nation, state, or city combines all neighborhoods, so the numbers tend to even out. However, if you look at the types of neighborhoods charter schools are meant to serve, those with high rates of poverty, the numbers look very different. You will find the numbers of students with special needs and limited English proficiency are lower in charter schools than in public schools.(Visit Separate and Unequal?: The Problematic Segregation of Special Populations in Charter Schools Relative to Traditional Public Schools.)
    For example, in New York City 14% of students have limited English proficiency and 19% receive special education. But move to a district 6 in Harlem and you'll find about one third or more students at public schools there are not proficient in English and there is a higher rate of students receiving special education services. When you look at charter school data, you come up short, because no data exists. This is one of the transparency issues brought up in the panel by the experts who believe charter schools are overrated. Those who support charter schools know it's probably a good idea to hide those numbers. Here is what the data looks like when you drill down into the school search:

    Citywide averages in NYC
    District 6
    Public School
    District 6
    Charter School

    A public school teacher in attendance pointed out is that it is common for students to be counseled out of the school if they do not meet behavior or academic expectations. These students are sent back to their local public school and in many cases the funds do not follow the student, but rather stay with the charter school. This leaves public schools with less per student funding and charters with more. As a result while the number of students with behavior issues, learning disabilities, or English language learners may be “enrolled”/”accepted” they often do not continue at the schools further skewing the numbers.
  2. Charter schools outperform public schools
    Not quite. Gary Miron, Professor in Evaluation, Measurement, and Research at Western Michigan University has extensive experience evaluating school reforms and education policies and has been hired by state education agencies to undertake comprehensive evaluations of charter school reforms.  He shared that there are more than 80 rigorous studies of charter schools. Across those 80 studies he shared there is really no difference in performance.  He added that we don't see charter school advocates citing the biggest study out there right now done by Mathematica.  This is largely because the study found no significant differences between those who attended charter schools and those who never made it off the waiting lists.  On the whole, students attending charter schools perform similarly to those who did not.

    Vasquez Heilig confirmed this by sharing what happens when a whole city goes charter. He explained that New Orleans and Louisiana writ large, are last and nearly last in every single education outcome.  And they've had 10 years and got everything they wanted -- charter schools, Teach for America, vouchers.  You name it, they got it there.   And New Orleans and Louisiana are last or near last in all the education outcomes.
  3. Charter schools are more innovative than traditional public schools
    Miron shared that in terms of innovation, while there are some innovative schools, the systematic research has shown that charter schools, on the whole, have innovations that, in terms of nature and scale and scope are not different from traditional public schools.  He acknowledged that there are innovative public schools and innovative charter schools, and they should be commended, but, on the whole, charters are not innovative.

    Jeanne Allen founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform said that because of charters there have been tremendous innovations in experiential and project-based learning. But long-time public school educators know this is something public schools have been doing successfully not by following the lead of charters, but by leading the way with partners like the Buck Institute and Outward Bound. She shared that these approaches and much more started in charter schools and was ported over to public. As another example she said some of the first public Montessori's were charter schools and they were copied by districts.  Fact check reveals that public, non-charter Montessori private and public schools existed first.

    Charter advocates want to take credit for the type of innovation public schools were perfectly capable of achieving on their own. The misconception is that public schools need to copy charter schools to incorporate innovative practices. To the contrary, charters school advocates are trying to take credit for models public schools embraced first.
  4. Charter schools are a good solution for all children Even Robinson acknowledged that charter schools are not going to serve all of our children, but, he explained, “all of our children are already not served by public schools.” That of course begs the question, why aren’t we focused on those strategies that do serve all of our children better? Vasquez Heilig, pointed out that there are solutions such as class size reduction and pre-k access that have a dramatic statistical impact on student success. If we are interested in solutions that work, more efforts should be focused on such initiatives.
  5. School choice is a civil rights issue
    Donald Trump and his Secretary of Education have said that choice equals civil rights. Not true according to Vasquez Heilig.  He shared that, “as noted recently by the civil rights organizations -- the NAACP, the Journey for Justice, and the Movement for Black Lives -- charter schools are far from a civil rights remedy.” He made the case by sharing that overall, their results mirror -- and in many cases, underperform -- traditional schools, the public schools that have been denounced as failing by charter advocates.  Vasquez Heilig pointed out that, in some important ways, by using approaches that limit or deny access to some of our most vulnerable students, many charter schools actually undermine the civil rights causes and in fact, is the opposite of democracy.  
  1. Charter schools were created to help privatize education
    Privatization is a popular conservative response to improving services traditionally run by the government. Interestingly, though, this was not the impetus for the charter movement. Miron, explained that in 1988, education reformer and American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker was behind the proposal of a new kind of public school—“charter schools”—which would allow teachers to experiment with innovative approaches to educating students. Publicly funded but independently managed, these schools would be given a charter to try their fresh approaches for a set period of time and be renewed only if they succeeded. Freed from bureaucratic constraints, teachers would be empowered to draw on their expertise to create educational laboratories from which the traditional public schools would learn. They would be liberated from traditional school boundaries. (Read more here).

    While Milton was very impressed with that idea, over the last 25 years a different reality played out. Milton shared that they're not locally-run, today.  Many of them used to be locally run, but today, increasingly, they are started by outside private companies and their proportion of the charter school market grows with every year. While Miron  had great hope for charter schools he explained that they have not lived up to the ideal and they're not pursuing this publicly establish objectives. Instead, he shared that the reform idea has been taken from us by private interests pursuing ideological and profit motives.  He said, “I want my charter school reform back.  It feels like somebody has stolen that from us.”
  2. Public schools need rules and regulations that charter schools don’t
    The misconception is that public schools don’t also want to be free from many of the rules and regulations holding them back. Providing two sets of rules does not provide an even playing field. As Vasquez Heilig reminded us, Albert Shanker first envisioned charter schools so they would be more democratic.  They'd be teacher run.  They would be community run. Charter schools were supposed to give public schools more autonomy. Instead. five or six years later Shanker became disenchanted with the idea of charter schools because what had happened was the intent was lost and instead nonprofit and for-profit corporations had come in to run the schools. Real school choice would give teachers and the community a choice in how ALL public schools, not JUST charter, are run.

    There have been opportunities for regular public schools to have waivers to lift regulations if the school community makes such requests. This is the type of structure that provides true school choice.

After arguments were made on both sides and misconceptions were addressed, the online and live New York City audience answered the question, “Are charter schools overrated?”

The verdict? Yes!

The team arguing for the motion Vasquez Heilig and  Miron won by persuading the audience that charter schools performed no better than public schools on average, they are not more innovative, they contribute to increased segregation, and they lack transparency. The opposing team, Allen and Robinson, were not able to convince the majority of the audience that charters were crucial in places where traditional public schools are failing, that they help children, especially the disadvantaged, to succeed, and that charters are the key to providing the best options to parents.

Now that these misconceptions have been cleared up, what do you think? Are charter schools overrated?

Need help deciding? Watch the debate live and discover additional information at this link

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