Public Schools and Charter Schools: Who’s Leaving Kids Behind?

Many political leaders and foundations are pushing charter schools as the key to closing achievement gaps. The U.S. Congress is preparing to take up changes in the so-called “No Child Left Behind” law, and turning more schools over to charter operators may be a feature of the overhaul.

So let’s take a closer look. Who’s really leaving children behind?

Is it public schools, which take all comers — and get blasted when their test scores aren’t up to par? Or elite charter schools like the Knowledge is Power (KIPP) chain, which boasts that 85 percent of its graduates go on to college, but, in fact, many students who start out at KIPP schools never make it to graduation.

Is it Boston’s public high schools, where 19 percent of the students are not fluent in English? Or Boston’s charter high schools, with 2 percent not fluent in English.

Is it New York City’s public schools, where 16 percent have disabilities? Or New York City’s charter schools, with nine percent?

Public school educators also frequently report that students enroll after they were forced to leave a charter school because of disciplinary infractions.

It’s not that all charter schools push out the hardest students. Some make it their mission to help the most challenging students they can find—and often suffer in the test score sweepstakes as a result.

NEA has long supported charter schools that are laboratories for developing new approaches to educating at-risk students—approaches which can then be replicated in the broader public school system.

And some charter schools are unionized. They don’t find their union contracts in conflict with their desire to innovate.

But many of the charter schools with the best test scores and the highest college attendance rates also have high attrition. A 2008 study of five KIPP schools in the San Francisco Bay area revealed that 60% of KIPP students left during their middle school years. So the schools most often touted as proof that charters are the key to helping all children reach high standards—don’t help all students. They help some—those with enough confidence, motivation, and family support to push forward through a demanding program.

“The vast majority of students enter during the 6th grade and then the total number of KIPP students in 7th and 8th grade falls precipitously,” explains Richard Kahlenberg, Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation.

Then they go back to public school.

And the public schools must now cope with all the problems of educating students with less motivation and more of every kind of problem, in a time of slashed budgets. Their funding problems are exacerbated when money is diverted to new charter schools under formulas that may fail to take into account the extra costs of educating at-risk students.

Many public schools do have special programs for motivated students, and they are very successful. For example, there’s AVID—“Advancement Via Individual Determination”—with 120,000 students enrolled in more than 1,500 schools across the country. AVID students get up early, stay late, and work furiously to reach their goal of college graduation and the professional careers that a college degree can open up. And they do great—95 percent of AVID graduates go on to college.

But students who aren’t motivated enough for AVID still go to their schools, and still get as much help as their public school teachers can give.

Some public schools need to change to better meet the needs of their at-risk students–that’s why NEA launched its Priority Schools Campaign.

But charter schools that only work for motivated students cannot show the path to better education for all.

  • Mark Nash

    Tim, thanks for the article. I do have a few questions about former charter school students and the funding that follows them. Does a charter school receive the public school equivalent in funding for each student in their building? When does the school receive that money? What happens to the money if a parent pulls a child out, or the child gets kicked out of the charter? Here in Indiana there are no provisions in any of the legislation that deal with that aspect. Schools are going to order workbooks, textbooks and other supplies based on their enrollment; and with budget being so tight, I do not see them ordering much extra. I also see charter schools getting the full dollar amount per child up front to help covering many of the same expense, in addition to staff salaries. Public schools will also cut staff based on reduced numbers.

    So what happens when the kids come back to the public schools? How are the expenses for the additional students covered? Let’s say a charter is forced to close, whether it be for poor performance, or for financial issues. The Mayor of Indianapolis just closed one that had 285 students attending due to poor performance. We are talking major dollars needed for when those kids come back right? These scenarios could end up costing states millions.

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  • Michael

    Each of my children have experience in both public education and charter schools. The main benefit to parents is involvement; the public schools insisted on teaching “D’Nealean” writing which is a proprietary script not used anywhere, making reading and writing difficult. The local school district refused to budge on the issue. Teachers were handing out photocopied texts, one day from one book, the next day from a different book, making it impossible for me to help my children with their homework since it was totally unpredictable.

    Finally we got into a charter school where parental involvement was not only permitted, but obligatory. My children suddenly were learning to read and write in the same font and style that is used for every public notice and sign in the nation and their arithmetic assignments came from a well established book which I was able to purchase on Amazon for myself and thus help my children.

    My youngest daughter started at a public high school, but it is enormous, and the chaos of moving six or seven times a day on a huge campus does not leave much time for instruction. Now, in a charter school, she has only three subjects each day — for two hours each. All homework is done in class and with two hours of contact you can do some serious work. The terms are shorter of course; trading 6 or 7 topics per day to just 3 means you complete that particular topic in half the time with better results.

    I love it. To be sure, some charters are ABSURD but at least I, the parent, can CHOOSE. I am definitely “pro choice” in this regard, as ought all of you to be.