Charter schools are publicly funded elementary or secondary schools that have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools, in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each charter school's charter.
NEA believes that charter schools and other nontraditional public school options have the potential to facilitate education reforms and develop new and creative teaching methods that can be replicated in traditional public schools for the benefit of all children. Whether charter schools will fulfill this potential depends on how charter schools are designed and implemented, including the oversight and assistance provided by charter authorizers.
NEA's Policy on Charter Schools
State laws and regulations governing charter schools vary widely. NEA's state affiliates have positions on charter schools that are appropriate to the situation in their states. NEA's policy statement sets forth broad parameters, and minimum criteria by which to evaluate state charter laws. For example:
- A charter should be granted only if the proposed school intends to offer an educational experience that is qualitatively different from what is available in traditional public schools.
- Local school boards should have the authority to grant or deny charter applications; the process should be open to the public, and applicants should have the right to appeal to a state agency decisions to deny or revoke a charter.
- Charter school funding should not disproportionately divert resources from traditional public schools.
- Charter schools should be monitored on a continuing basis and should be subject to modification or closure if children or the public interest is at risk.
- Private schools should not be allowed to convert to public charter schools, and private for-profit entities should not be eligible to receive a charter.
- Charter schools should be subject to the same public sector labor relations statutes as traditional public schools, and charter school employees should have the same collective bargaining rights as their counterparts in traditional public schools.
Growth of Charter Schools
Beginning with two charter schools in Minnesota in 1991, there were almost 3,000 charter schools by 2004, operating in 37 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and enrolling approximately 750,000 students. However, more than one-third of those schools had been in operation for three years or less, while more than 400 other charter schools had gone out of business between 1991 and 2004.
Academic Effectiveness of Charter Schools
Because charter schools vary as widely as traditional public schools, their academic achievement also varies widely. It is difficult -- not to mention scientifically invalid -- to make blanket comparisons of charter schools to traditional public schools. However, because charter schools promise to improve student achievement as a condition of relief from some of the rules and regulations that apply to traditional public schools, it is appropriate to evaluate their effectiveness.
In 2004, the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) released an analysis of charter school performance on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation's Report Card. The report found that charter school students, on average, score lower than students in traditional public schools. While there was no measurable difference between charter school students and students in traditional public schools in the same racial/ethnic subgroup, charter school students who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch scored lower than their peers in traditional public schools, and charter school students in central cities scored lower than their peers in math in 4th grade.
NAGB looked at the impact of school characteristics and found that:
Charter schools that were part of the local school district had significantly higher scores than charter schools that served as their own district.
Students taught by certified teachers had roughly comparable scores whether they attended charter schools or traditional public schools, but the scores of students taught by uncertified teachers in charter schools were significantly lower than those of charter school students with certified teachers.
Students taught by teachers with at least five years' experience outperformed students with less experienced teachers, regardless of the type of school attended, but charter school students with inexperienced teachers did significantly worse than students in traditional public schools with less experienced teachers. (The impact of this finding is compounded by the fact that charter schools are twice as likely as traditional public schools to employ inexperienced teachers.)
In a study that followed North Carolina students for several years, professors Robert Bifulco and Helen Ladd found that students in charter schools actually made considerably smaller achievement gains in charter schools than they would have in traditional public schools.
Accountability Proves To Be Elusive
In its official evaluation of the federally funded Public Charter School Program, Evaluation of the Public Charter Schools Program: Final Report, the U.S. Department of Education found that many charter school authorizers lack the capacity to adequately oversee charter school operations, often lack authority to implement formal sanctions, and rarely invoke the authority they do have to revoke or not renew a charter. Where charters have been revoked or not renewed, the decision has been linked more to noncompliance with state and federal regulations and financial problems than with academic performance.
Accountability is also lacking in oversight for federal charter school programs. According to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Charter Schools: To Enhance Education's Monitoring and Research, More Charter School-Level Data Are Needed, released in January 2005, the U.S. Department of Education has little data to ensure that charter schools receive the federal funds that have been allocated to them in a timely manner, or to evaluate the performance of those schools. GAO recommended that the U.S. Department of Education collect basic data from recipients of federal charter school funds, such as the number of charter schools actually opened with program funds. GAO also advised that the Department include a look at the effect of states' oversight approaches in its evaluation of charter schools.
NEA Policy on Charter Schools - Policy statement adopted by the 2001 Representative Assembly.
Evaluation of the Public Charter Schools Program: Final Report - Department of Education study (2004) of the federally funded program found that charter schools in five states were less likely than public schools to meet state performance standards.
Charter Schools: To Enhance Education's Monitoring and Research, More Charter School-Level Data Are Needed - A report by the Government Accountability Office recommended that the U.S. Department of Education collect basic data from recipients of federal charter school funds