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Charters: Social innovation hit or miss?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The proliferation of charter schools has had a significant impact in educational reform during the past decade. The trend of charter school growth should continue into the next decade.

According to the Center for Education Reform, there are more than 4,900 charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia, enrolling over 1.5 million students. President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have made increasing the number of charter schools a significant part of their agenda, making the flexibility of states’ charter school laws a criterion for the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competitive grants from the economic stimulus package.

Like President Obama, I appreciate the value of school choice.

My youngest son Kagiso is a senior at, the nominally successful Mastery Charter School. Mastery Charter is being touted as a national model for school reform. During 1999-2000 my middle son, Thato, attended the now defunct Center for Economics and Law (CEL) Charter School. CEL represents the other spectrum of charter schools, which lack fiscal oversight and deliver similar or lower results than traditional public schools. The Philadelphia Academy Charter School in the Northeast reportedly had similar problems with theft and fraud due to poor oversight. These extreme cases of charter school success and failure raise the question: Will expanding charter schools ultimately improve the quality and choices of educational alternatives for families?

My colleague Bonnee Breese, who teaches at Overbrook High School, attended a White House Town Hall meeting in March 2009, where she had the opportunity to probe President Obama on his views of charter schools. He noted that charter schools have some flexibility in design and serve as laboratories for innovative teaching and learning. He also pointed out “that some charters haven’t worked out so well. And just like bad — or regular — schools, they need to be shut down if they’re not doing a good job.”

Some will argue that expanding the charter school marketplace will not necessarily improve the quality of public education. A new Stanford study suggested that quantity is the enemy of quality in the charter market place. The report finds 17% of charter schools improve students outcomes compared to traditional public schools, while 37% of charter schools showed gains that were worse than traditional public schools, with 47% of charter schools demonstrating no significant difference. Based on this report, the trend to expand charter schools may create worse school choices and further limit the resources at both charter and traditional public schools.

Charter schools appear to be a part of the permanent landscape of educational reform. The focus of quality over quantity does needs to be the key feature in the charter school growth and development of school choice. Otherwise, families will have the same hit-and-miss experience I have had with charter schools.