Skip to Content

Issues & Impact

After 25 Years, a Course Correction on Charter Schools?

New Calls For Accountability May Steer Supporters Away From Charters

In 1991, Minnesota passed the nation’s first charter school law. One year later, St. Paul’s City Academy was open. By 2001, more than 40 states would have their own laws authorizing charters to set up shop in school districts. And now, 25 years later, 7 percent of all U.S. students—almost 3 million total—are now attending charter schools.

Often considered the crown jewel of the education reform movement, charters have faced heightened scrutiny in recent years, and it’s fair to say that the brand has taken a bit of a beating. Whether it’s extreme financial mismanagement, punitive and unfair disciplinary policies, questionable enrollment practices, or exaggerated reports of academic success, the charter sector’s record is (finally) on display.

But will new calls for greater accountability steer us away from the unfettered expansion of the last 25 years, or will charter schools continue to grab larger chunks of market share in school districts across the country? That was one of the questions addressed at a recent panel discussion held in Washington, D.C., at the Center for American Progress to mark the 25th anniversary of Minnesota’s landmark charter school law.

Leo Casey, executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, began by reminding the audience that the original vision for charter schools—first articulated by education labor leader Albert Shanker in the late 1980s—is now more or less non-existent in the sector today. The two pillars of that vision were that charters should be a place for innovation that could be shared with traditional public schools, and that teachers, parents, and community members would be empowered to try out new ideas and actually play an active role in school decision-making.

“But 25 years later, the reality is that this has happened in only a minority of charter schools,” Casey said. “Most use a very traditional curriculum, a very traditional pedagogy, and rely upon stringent discipline policies.”

The successful charter schools that are innovative and do empower educators and parents “represent the exception, not the rule,” he added.

Misinterpreting Results

David Osborne, a longtime charter school advocate, disagreed with Casey’s assessment and held up KIPP schools as models of innovation. As an example, Osbourne pointed to the practice of assessing students every six weeks, 1:1 laptop initiatives, and the prevalence of blended learning.

“Traditional public schools don’t do that,” Osborne said.

Shantelle Wright of Achievement Prep—one of the nation’s best-known charter schools—made it clear she wasn’t there to defend all charter schools, but argued that critics have been using a “broad, sweeping brush” to exaggerate problems in the sector. The bottom line, Wright said, is that “charter schools are delivering” for students in high-poverty districts.

“But there’s a lazy and reactionary interpretation which says, ‘Ok, if a KIPP school, for example, has a high level of segregation and high numbers of low-income students, then poverty and segregation must have very little effect on achievement,’” said Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

Needed: Diversity and Teacher Voice

KIPP, the nation’s largest chain of public charter schools, Kahlenberg added, “actually kind of brags that they are segregated. But half a century of academic research suggests strongly that this is not an ideal model for educating kids. Now many KIPP students are in college, in institutions that are perhaps more economically and racially integrated, and they are struggling.”

It’s a growing problem summed up in a recent report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA: “The charter movement has been a major political success, but it has been a civil rights failure.”

The panel also discussed the ongoing problem of teacher churn, or the high attrition rates that have afflicted the charter sector.

“What we have for the most part in charter schools is a Teach for America (TFA) model,” Casey said. “The majority of TFA graduates are being sent to charter schools and they haven’t mastered the craft of teaching.”

Take ACTION Tell legislators to adopt stronger charter school standards. Take action at

Wisconsin Faculty Fighting the Destruction of Public Higher Education

Budget cuts, attacks on tenure, and shared governance, just part of the problem

A faculty vote of “no-confidence” is the “nuclear option” on campus—the “delete your account” of academia. It says publicly, loudly, and collectively that professors no longer believe their president or other leaders can give students what they need.

This spring, an unprecedented wave of thousands of faculty on University of Wisconsin (UW) campuses, plus the 13 two-year UW System Colleges, voted no-confidence in UW System President Ray Cross and the Board of Regents. They are fed up with devastating state budget cuts, attacks on tenure, and what they see as the systematic demolition of one of the world’s finest public universities for political purposes.

“By voting no confidence, we protest the intentional destruction of our internationally recognized university system,” UW-Milwaukee (UWM) professor Rachel Ida Buff told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

In Milwaukee, at the largest meeting of UWM faculty in decades—or possibly ever—nearly 300 people voted unanimously in May. Their vote was preceded by the initial action at UW-Madison, the system’s flagship university, and also UW-River Falls and UW-La Crosse, and then quickly followed by similar censures on other campuses.

“This resolution is an expression of frustration…over what has happened to public higher education [here] over the past year, 18 months, whatever,” Mitch Freymiller, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Senate chair told Wisconsin Public Radio.

Meanwhile, key UW faculty members have thrown up their hands at Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker—the architect of these university “reforms”—and quit UW altogether.

“At my new university in another state, I will have stronger tenure protections than I now have here. I will earn about 50 percent more than my current salary for the same job,” wrote Caroline Levine, professor and chair of the English department at UW-Madison, in The Capital Times last month.

How Did We Get Here?

In Wisconsin, public higher education is deeply rooted in UW’s 110-year-old mission, known as “The Wisconsin Idea,” which holds that the university must aim to “educate people and improve the human condition.” Last year, in a draft budget, the governor proposed striking those words about the human condition, as well as the part about the system’s “search for truth,” and replacing it with language about meeting “the state’s workforce needs.”

The mission was left unaltered after public outcry, but perhaps more troubling to its actual fulfillment was the approved budget, which cut $250 million from the UW system and froze tuition. (At the same time, Walker directed $250 million in public funds to build a new arena for the Milwaukee Bucks). Those cuts have led to staff layoffs and unfilled faculty positions, much larger and less personalized classes, and damaging reductions to student counseling and advising services. At UW-Madison alone, officials have said they will eliminate 434 jobs, and across the system the number of employees has been reduced by more than 1,400.

It’s a false idea that students and families are served by state spending cuts and frozen tuition. As a purely economic argument against budget cuts, faculty point out that students will pay higher costs when it takes them longer, possibly six to eight years, to graduate because they can’t get the classes they need to complete their programs. Even more important, the quality of their higher education will erode, as faculty and staff’s “ability to educate and serve our students” is impaired, said Buff.

Walker also eliminated faculty tenure from state law last year, saying that any necessary job protections could be preserved in university policy.

Policy Changes Causing Faculty to Flee    

UW faculty were shot down by Regents when faculty suggested prioritizing educational considerations—that is the benefit of academic programs to students—when making decisions about program cuts or layoffs, in the way they are prioritized at peer institutions like the University of Michigan, said David Vanness, a UW-Madison associate professor and president of the UW-Madison American Association of University Professors chapter. “Rather than defend the mission of the university, they actually welcome these new tools,” he said.

Indeed, the Regent chair wrote in an editorial: “Our new policy proposal empowers chancellors to discontinue programs as necessary for educational or financial reasons, and if absolutely necessary, it allows for faculty in those programs to be laid off.”

What the changes to policy mean is that faculty who do important but controversial research—say, around the effectiveness of expensive pharmaceuticals, or the repercussions of repealing gun-control laws—can be much more easily silenced if they cross the wrong lawmaker or political donor. Another serious concern is that programs in the liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences, where benefits to society are difficult to measure in monetary terms, will be closed and faculty will be laid off so that university resources can be shifted to other programs.

All of this makes it more difficult for UW to attract and retain the best teachers and researchers, notes Vanness. “We are all leaving. No joke,” tweeted former UW-Madison political scientist Sara Goldrick-Rab last summer.

“We’re seeing a lot of retirements, a lot of positions unfilled, and some very visible departures,” said Vanness. “The effects on students may not be immediately visible, but they will become apparent eventually.”


Published in:

Published In