Selected readings on US charter schools
Just what is a charter school? That’s the question I get most often when I talk to people in the general public. It’s a good question. What’s going on with charter schools around here is both important and tough to grasp.
Gov. Scott Walker unveiled ideas last week for momentous steps related to education around the state as part of his budget proposal for the next two years.
One of them was not allowing public schools to spend more money for operations in the next two years than they’re spending now. I was betting Walker would back a modest increase, at least in line with increased state aid for schools. By not increasing what is called the revenue cap on schools, Walker effectively proposed using increased education aid for property tax relief, not education. That would mean putting public schools statewide in increasingly tight circumstances. Will Republicans in the Legislature accept that or moderate it? A big question for the coming months.
Another Walker proposal would allow launching private school vouchers in as many as nine more cities in the state (Milwaukee and Racine have them now). It’s very controversial and we’ll talk about it in coming weeks.
But Walker’s budget proposal also includes important charter school changes. Those have gotten less attention, so let’s focus on them here, mostly in the form of a primer on charters.
First, an attempt to answer the opening question: We all know what a conventional public school is. Ideally, a charter school is what results when some group says it has a different idea for how a school should operate. That group says to some government body (usually a school board) that if you agree to let us operate (an agreement known as a charter), give us public money to pay for serving each student, and freedom from a lot of the rules for conventional schools, we’ll provide something distinctive that brings good results.
The upshot: Charter schools generally operate as independent schools, run by their own team, and not as part of the established school system.
The ideal bargain behind a charter – independence in exchange for results – works sometimes and the results can be impressive. Some of the most successful, ambitious and innovative schools in Milwaukee are charters. But there are also a lot of charters where neither innovation nor good results are notable. Overall, nationwide and probably around here, there isn’t much difference in overall results between charters and conventional schools.
In general, a charter has to be renewed every few years. There’s a fairly strong history in Milwaukee of charters being canceled when a school isn’t doing well.
The charter school idea was launched in Minnesota around 1990 and took off. More than 2 million students nationwide are attending charter schools now. There are more than 200 charters in Wisconsin, with around 37,000 students, according to the Wisconsin Charter School Association.
Small-time operators have become a smaller factor and larger players with networks of schools – often known as CMOs (charter management organizations) – have become more of a force. Several CMOs have opened or are planning to open schools in Milwaukee.
As the movement has grown, it has drawn more opposition, often from people connected to conventional public schools that are losing students and money. (My own theory is that around here, charters have been less controversial than in some other places because we’re so preoccupied with fighting over the voucher program.)
What’s the difference between a charter school and a private school getting voucher students? To name a couple: Voucher schools can be (and generally are) religious. Charter schools cannot be religious. Also, charters get more money per student than vouchers, although both get less than public schools.
A matter many misunderstand: Charter schools give their students Wisconsin’s standardized tests and report results publicly. They are all part of the state’s new “report card” system for schools. Voucher schools report their test results but are not part of the report card system. Neither system is as open to public view as the conventional system.
Who goes to charter schools? By law, children cannot be screened to accept only the best ones. Advocates say there is not much difference between whom they enroll and who goes to traditional schools. Critics say the reality is that charters end up “creaming” kids, getting more who have parents who are actively engaged and fewer with big behavior problems or special needs.
There are four groups of charter schools in Milwaukee: Ones that are given permission to operate by the Milwaukee School Board and are staffed by MPS employees; ones that are authorized by the School Board but not staffed by MPS employees; ones that are authorized by Milwaukee city government; and ones authorized through the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The latter three are sometimes called “independent” charter schools.
So what does Walker want? He wants to allow independent charter schools to be opened across the state, especially in larger districts with some low performing schools. He proposes creating a state Charter School Oversight Board to handle this. Approving this could lead to substantial growth of charter schools not connected to the traditional system. Walker also would allow a school district to make all its schools charter schools, presumably giving them independence from many bureaucratic and program requirements.
Independent charters now receive $7,775 per student in public money. Walker proposed raising that to $7,852 next year and $7,931 the following year, a 1% increase each year. It’s not as much as charter operators hoped for, but it’s better than zero, which is what public schools are looking at.
The overall thrust? If approved, Walker’s proposals would add some momentum – and perhaps quite a bit – to the charter movement statewide. Charters are already a major shaper of the education landscape in Milwaukee. Walker would extend that widely.
Source: Journal Sentinel Online – by Alan J. Borsuk (Senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School)