By Deep Sran
The Virginia Senate recently rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that aimed to expand the number of charter schools. I believe Virginia should authorize more charter schools, because charter schools—flaws and all—give educators more freedom to test new ideas to improve learning outcomes.
Background on Charter Schools
First, a bit of background on charter schools. A charter school is a publicly funded school that is managed privately by a not-for-profit entity. Charter schools, like traditional public schools (TPS), are open enrollment—they cannot pick their students. Charter schools generally have more freedom to hire and fire teachers, but they receive less money per child than TPS because they do not get separate funds for facilities. In New York City, for example, this meant 16 percent less money per student for charter schools in 2014-2015. Finally, both charter and TPS are required to administer high stakes standardized tests.
The first charter school was opened in 1992 in Minnesota by teachers who wanted to try new ideas. From this humble beginning, there were over 6000 charter schools teaching over 2.3 million students—compared with 49.8 million in TPS, about 4 million in religious private schools, and over 1 million in secular private schools—as of the 2012-2013 academic year. In Washington, DC, 42 percent of public school students attended charter schools. Arizona, the state with the highest percentage, had about 14 percent of public school students in charter schools. Of the 41 states (including DC) that had charter schools, no state had a lower percentage (virtually zero) of students in charter schools than Virginia.
Questions and Pragmatism about Charter Schools
The evidence on charter schools is mixed, but they are a superior alternative to TPS for some students. A recent, 26-state Stanford study showed no significant difference nationally in student achievement between charter and TPS. According to the director of the National Educational Policy Center, “the [Stanford study] findings are highly consistent with an overall body of research concluding that the test-score outcomes of the sectors are almost identical.” But, Bruce Fuller, a professor at UC Berkeley, notes that “established charter schools such as KIPP that have been in operation for years, along with those serving large shares of black and Latino kids, do often lift achievement at higher rates than do traditional counterparts.” He also notes, however, that charter schools “appear to undermine the learning progress among children from middle-class families.” The evidence is certainly not clear, but it appears existing charter schools, like TPS, are good for some students and not for others.
I began working in education to build a school run by teachers that would be a lab for best practices. Initially, I planned to start a charter school because it would be more open to new ideas and more agile than a TPS but would still serve all students. After working for two years as a teacher and administrator at a charter school in DC, however, I decided to open a private school in Ashburn. I made this decision because, while charter schools are generally a better place to test new ideas than TPS, they are more limited in this regard than private schools.
In the charter management organization—an organization that runs more than one charter school—where I worked, I didn’t see the sort of openness to experimentation that drove the creation of charter schools initially. I blame this, in large part, on the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In an effort to meet the annual student progress requirements under NCLB—which has been substantially amended since—the school where I worked abandoned much of what made it wonderful for students. Second, I saw how difficult it was for teachers to do what was best for students while meeting the demands of non-teachers: the management team, board of directors, public charter school board, public school board, philanthropic foundations donating money, and federal regulators. So I chose to open a private school, to give great teachers room and time to design a better model for secondary education. Unfortunately, privately funded schools are too expensive for the vast majority of students, and I haven’t figured out (yet) how to make them work in the poorest school districts. So, while charter schools have their limitations, they are more adaptive than many TPS and more egalitarian than private schools.
The disparity in funding among school districts makes positive change even more difficult to implement in many TPS, because it’s more difficult to retain great teachers and provide them with the resources they need. The total annual spending per pupil for operations (excluding capital expenses) in 2013-2014 in Virginia ranged from $8591 in King George to $12,611 in Loudoun to $19,400 in Arlington. As Nate Bowling—2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year—noted in his blog, when it comes to improving student outcomes, teacher quality matters more than everything else. The funding disparity means that affluent public school districts can hire and retain better teachers than poor districts.
This leaves poor districts in need of new ideas and better solutions. I don’t believe TPS and private schools are structured to help the students who need it most, but charter schools are. Charter schools can function as labs to test new ideas and as alternatives for parents who currently have no other options. Charter schools give school leaders more freedom than TPS to do what their students and teachers need.
Virginia Should Authorize More Charter Schools
Should there be more charter schools in Virginia? My answer is a qualified “yes.”
I know education can and must be far better for students than it is, even in suburban school districts, and, as in every other field, I know the only way to improve is by introducing and testing new ideas all the time, so we keep coming up with better ones. I believe having a range of educational choices is critical for positive change.
What is the best way to improve the quality of education for every student in Virginia, given the vast economic differences among counties? While I don’t have all the answers, I know one way to improve formal education is to be open and to try new ideas. Because of their greater freedom to innovate and adapt, quality charter schools can improve outcomes and equity, particularly for those whom TPS have failed or abandoned. Ultimately, with more room to experiment, charter schools and private schools can make traditional public schools better.
[Deep Sran, founder of Loudoun School for the Gifted in Ashburn, has been on a mission to improve formal education for two decades. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]