Charter Schools: What Really Makes Them So Appealing?

Parents across the U.S. are clamoring to get their kids into charter schools, but is this the way American education should be going?

The school choice movement is quickly growing in popularity, but too many kids are still left behind. (Photo: Washington Post/Getty Images)

Jul 1, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Nearly one million names are on waiting lists to attend charter schools. This is a dramatic increase from last year.

In the 2011-12 school year, 610,000 names were on the list compared to 920,000 this year, according to a new survey by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Two years ago, the number was about 420,000.

“With public charter school waitlists approaching one million names, it’s heartbreaking for too many families hoping to send their child to a high-quality public charter school,” Nina Rees, NAPCS president and CEO, said in a statement. “Although the number of public charter schools is increasing rapidly—this year an additional 275,000 students enrolled in charter schools—this survey demonstrates that parental demand continues to outpace what is an already increasing supply.”

Charter schools are continually a point of controversy in education circles. Some critics argue that more federal money should be put into traditional public schools, instead of new charters. Still, proponents say that charter schools serve as a much-needed alternative, especially for disadvantaged students.

But are charter schools the best choice for students?

“Despite research showing that the vast majority of charter schools either fare worse or do not differ significantly from traditional public schools in student growth in reading or math (75 percent and 71 percent, respectively), the public continues to believe that charter schools are a preferred alternative to public schools,” Jerusha O. Conner, assistant professor of education at Villanova University, told TakePart. “The market-based logic of competition coupled with anti-union sentiment, promulgated by popular films like Won't Back Down and powerful lobbying groups, has captured public opinion.”

Conner points out a recent study by Stanford University researchers which finds that charter school students in many states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania, perform worse than their peers in traditional public schools in both reading and math.

“However, families across the state [Pennsylvania] continue to flock to charter schools,” she said.

One reason for the rush to charter schools could be how traditional public schools are faring amid severe budget cuts. There’s overcrowding in classrooms, a decline in extracurricular programs, such as art and drama, and the elimination of school librarians and guidance counselors.

“I think the appeal of charter schools is present because of the amount of corruption and ineffective management found in some of the regular, large and small, public school districts across the nation,” Luis Gabriel Aguilera, a Chicago educator, told TakePart.

He points to teacher cheating scandals in Atlanta and the creation of teacher “rubber rooms” in New York and Chicago—a place where teachers who face disciplinary charges sit, knit, and stare at the wall while collecting their full paycheck—as reasons why parents are seeking education alternatives.

Additionally, educators at charter schools are given more freedom to design curriculum, and administrators can hire non-union teachers. Parents also feel like they have more power over their child's education in charter schools. They get to choose a charter school instead of being told by a district to attend a neighorhood school that might not fit their child's needs.

While the Stanford study states that “the vast majority of charter schools in the United States are no better than public schools,” it also points out that some charters schools, are, in fact, improving.

This latest study is an updated version of Stanford’s initial 2009 report that examined charter schools. Then, researchers stated that only 17 percent of charter schools raised student math test scores above their traditional public school counterparts. That number is now 29 percent.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reports that schools that have been operating for six or more years have “an average waiting list of 238 students.” Even schools that haven’t been in existence that long have, on average, 178 students waiting.

Charter schools are likely to continue increasing in popularity as parents tire of traditional public schools and more school districts and private partnerships invest in charters.

“Perhaps both ineffective management and corruption is what is bringing so much appeal to charters by the neighbors who don’t have, as some would say, clout, ‘pull’, etc. and the will to navigate a sometimes hostile, political, corrupt, absurd, and a land-mined terrain,” Aguilera said. “As a parent and educator, I would say that makes the charters rather appealing.”