There is a common misconception in American society that charter schools are elite, private institutions reserved for those who have the money to pay for them. They are regarded by some as for-profit businesses whose main aim is to make money, not to educate the youth. This cannot be further from the truth.
In fact, charter schools are public entities which must have 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. Though some charter schools may hire private, for-profit management firms in order to manage school logistics, charter schools themselves are nonprofit, public entities which have been shown to greatly benefit their student populations—many coming from low-income and underserved communities—much more than their traditional district school counterparts.
What is a Charter School?
Charter schools are publicly funded schools that run independently from local school board districts. Unlike private schools, charters offer government-funded schooling opportunities and operate an open admissions policy, usually through a lottery system. This is significant, as charters do not admit on the basis of test scores, application strength, or family connections, but strictly on chance.
This can be seen as one of the ‘fairer’ strategies in accepting applicants, as every student who applies has literally the same chance as their peers at getting in, yet it also runs the risk of not admitting every student who desires to learn in a charter school environment. Oftentimes, denied students reapply in subsequent years for another shot.
This system provides a strong opportunity for any public-school student—regardless of background, academic proficiency, race, gender, or any other factor—to have a chance at a charter education.
Charter schools are run by independent organizations. For example, Success Academy operates 50 charter schools in the New York area. Catering to mostly lower-income families in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, the Success Academy has experienced exceptional results compared to NYC’s public schools and even compared to its private counterparts.
A 2018 study performed by Success Academy showed that 99 percent of its 426 eighth-grade students passed the New York Algebra 1 regents’ exam. Also, 93 percent of these eighth-graders showed scores which were considered, by CEO Eva Moskowitz, as “college ready,” with 56 percent attaining a 5—the highest mark on the exam. Meanwhile, according to the Department of Education, only 62 percent of New York City’s public-school students passed the same Algebra test. This is seen as a decline from the previous year’s 68 percent. Of those who passed, 20 percent had attained a 4 or 5 score.
Granted, this is only one example of a charter school organization. A diverse array of various organizations and companies run charters throughout the nation, and their performance is directly affected by their management styles, teaching strategies, and amount of effort put into educating their local communities.
While some organizations like Success Academy achieve great results, others are not as successful. In Florida, for example, 60+ charters have been shut down since they were approved in 1996. Since charters must adhere to the laws and regulations of their adopted states, the set of standards varies from state to state; it could revolve around: minimum graduation rates and test scores, accessibility standards, or random audits. This may seem harsh, but it serves an important purpose. In essence, it allows the education market to “weed out” the ineffective charter schools, and reward the ones who actually succeed and make a difference in the lives of children.
This runs contrary to how traditional public district schools are managed, where regardless of the school’s effectiveness, test scores, or graduation rates, they are often allowed to continue existing, with no plan for improvement in sight. During the Obama Administration, it was estimated that 82 percent of government funded public schools failed the ‘No Child Left Behind’ review, stemming mostly from inefficient management, a disconnect between school boards and students, and a lack of initiative to improve school curriculums and strategies despite being funded by millions of taxpayer dollars.
The Social Impact of Charter Schools
Compared to the average public-school counterpart, charter schools are actually more diverse when it comes to the student body. They offer schooling for more Black and Hispanic children, including those who are considered at higher risk of the effects of poverty. An estimated 75 percent of these children are eligible for reduced or even free lunches within the charter system.
A 2019 National Center for Education Statistics study found that, on average, traditional government schools have a 26 percent Hispanic and 15 percent black student body. Compare that to the average charter, which is 33 percent Hispanic and 26 percent black. In addition, the former usually has around a 57 percent white student body while charters see one that’s 50 percent.
Bridging Economic Gaps
As previously mentioned, charter schools host more lower-income students. In fact, charter schools seem to provide more educational opportunities to children from lower-income households than do even traditional public schools.
A greater percentage of charter schools are also located in large cities such as New York, Chicago, Washington DC, Houston, and others. In fact, in the same National Center for Education Statistics study, it was found that, in 2015–2016, 57 percent of charter schools were located in said cities, while 26 percent were in suburbs. Only about 25 percent of traditional public-schools are located in cities, many of which are regional schools which pull students from various communities and neighborhoods.
Resistance to What Works
Opposition to charter schools is pretty much expected in large cities and union-supportive states like New York and New Jersey. In these areas, officials play politics to appease the teachers’ unions and ensure that if charter schools want to play ball, they’ll have to pay a pretty penny. Under Michael Bloomberg’s initiatives, charter schools in NYC grew by a factor of 900 percent. Under Bill de Blasio, it seems that political pressure and the need to maintain control over city-funded district schools and how they teach outweighed the needs of the students.
De Blasio aimed to increase the rents for charter schools by implementing a progressive tax that would ultimately be a penalty on a school’s success. The more a charter raises via private donations—and subsequently outperforms its traditional counterparts—the more it would have to pay in taxes to the city, and the less it would have to fund teaching initiatives and student opportunities. In short, they would be punished for being successful.
New Jersey also holds its fair share of discrimination where, during his first term, Gov. Phil Murphy blocked about two thirds of applications for new charter schools in his state. Considering how Black and Hispanic students are more likely to show proficiency in math, reading, and writing in charter schools than in district schools, it's hard to see the justification
Despite the common tropes around what charter schools are, and the heavy opposition fueled by politicians and teachers’ unions alike, when the numbers are shown, it’s hard to argue against the effectiveness of charter schools. Not only for their proven ability to improve testing scores and graduation rates, but also in their mission to provide more opportunities to lower-income and minority communities.
Charter schools are, for many, a way out. They are a chance at a new beginning for a child’s academic future. Instead of stifling these opportunities of growth, we ought to look at the success found in organizations like Success Academy, which continue to lead district competitors in scoring and student performance, and recognize that choice is paramount, especially when it comes to the educational opportunities of our children.