With the push from the Trump administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for more funding for vouchers and school privatization, it’s worth taking another look at the track record of charter schools in Pennsylvania and beyond. Much evidence suggests that charter schools are, in fact, not living up to their hype.
For example, a study released in late 2015 by three highly regarded policy and research centers — including Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes or CREDO — found “the majority of online charter students had far weaker academic growth in both math and reading compared to their traditional public school peers. To conceptualize this shortfall, it would equate to a student losing 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math, based on a 180-day school year.”
While this study is older, CREDO’s 2011 Charter School Performance in Pennsylvania analysis showed “that students in Pennsylvania charter schools on average make smaller learning gains” than they would have if they had stayed in their traditional public schools. “More than one-quarter of the charter schools have significantly more positive learning gains than their traditional public school counterparts in reading, but their performance is eclipsed by the nearly half of charter schools that have significantly lower learning gains. In math, again nearly half of the charter schools studied perform worse than their traditional public school peers and one-quarter outperform them.”
Speaking from practical experience, David Hornbeck, former superintendent of the Philadelphia School District — and previous proponent of charter schools — in a recent op-ed urging the Kentucky Legislature not to introduce charter schools into that state, said that he had been “wrong.” He cited mixed academic results, the negative funding impact on regular public schools, including “draconian cuts,” and the fact that charters don’t serve students with the greatest challenges. He also noted that “there are as many or more innovations in traditional public schools as in charters,” and that charters are not substitutes for broader proven reforms.
A recent New York Times feature, “Michigan Gambled on Charter Schools. Its Children Lost,” demonstrated how in DeVos’ home state — a laboratory in consumer choice — “the radical expansion of charter schools” led to a situation in which “national test scores ranked Michigan last among all states when it came to improvements in student proficiency,” according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution.
As educators in public school classrooms, we know what works. High standards, high-quality teachers, preschool education, smaller class sizes, and parental involvement are key, along with many other factors.
We believe that great public schools are both a basic right and responsibility. With the continuing pressure from the Trump administration for vouchers and school choice, we urge thoughtful people to look at the facts and work toward strengthening and improving traditional public schools for every child in America.
Alan M. Malachowski is president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, Mideastern Region, and an elementary school music teacher in the North Penn School District.