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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: School Reforms That Are Persistent and Admired But Marginal (Part 2)

After Minnesota authorized charter schools in 1991, a group of veteran teachers founded City Academy in St. Paul. It became the first publicly funded charter school in 1992. A quarter-century later 43 states and Washington, D.C. permit charter schools to operate. Charters are innovative ways to govern, fund, and organize public schools. 

Using public monies and free of many state and district regulations, these schools have grown in a quarter-century from a handful to nearly 7000 across the U.S (there are about 100,000 public schools in the nation); they serve about 3 million students (over 50 million attend public schools). Largely found in urban districts (57 percent of all charter schools), these schools enroll mostly Hispanic and black students (total of 59 percent) charters. To those nay-sayers that often point to U.S. public schools as tossing aside reform after reform, Charter schools are a success story. 

Charters have separate boards of directors who have to design a new school, find space for it, recruit parents to send their sons and daughters to it, hire a director and teachers, decide on the curriculum and manner of instruction, and make scores of other decisions in getting the school up and running. In many cases, charters have to raise additional monies over and above the state’s allocation for public school students attending district schools.

Most charter (over 75 percent ) are stand-alone schools. One-quarter of charters belong to Charter Management Organizations (CMO) such as Kipp, Success Academies, Aspire, and Summit Schools. With stable funding (often from private donors), an ideology, and an existing infrastructure of support, CMOs provide constant help to new charters in their organization. Stand-alones, well, – have to do all of the above tasks have themselves. 

There are districts that have substantial percentages of charters in their boundaries that enroll anywhere from 10-90 percent of students. After the Katrina hurricane hit New Orleans, for example, nearly all public schools disappeared. All public school teachers and administrators were fired. In place of parish public schools, a system of charters appeared under the jurisdiction of a state-authorized Recovery School District. Political muscle from the state and donors supported the venture. Except for a few schools operated by the Orleans Parish School Board, 93 percent are charter schools operating under the RSD. 

According to a recent Bellwether report, Detroit has 53 percent of its public schools chartered followed by Washington, D.C., (46), Philadelphia (32), and Cleveland (30). In each instance a political coalition of parents, elected officials, and donors advocate for charters. Keep in mind that charter schools are mostly in cities–seven states have no charter schools at all–and that 6 percent of all U.S. students attend charters.

So in the past quarter-century, charters have emerged as a growing sector of schooling–although its growth has slowed considerably in past few years as political pushback from parents, teachers, and others have put caps on growth in such states as California and Massachusetts. 

While charters have spread swiftly since 1991, nearly all (94 percent) of U.S. students are in regular public schools. Nonetheless, that narrow slice of the educational market has given parents in urban districts more choice than they have traditionally had. Moreover, some states and districts, influenced by the charter movement, have increased the autonomy of regular public schools–releasing such schools from many district requirements–while expecting more accountability for results. Boston’s and Los Angeles’ Pilot Schools, Shelby County (TN)’s Innovation Zone Schools, and other jurisdictions have copied the charter school model.

The evidence that charter schools are more innovative–a basic reason for establishing such publicly-funded schools–in organization, curriculum and instruction than regular public schools is, at best, mixed. For the most part, charter schools are smaller in enrollment than their counterparts. And governance of charter schools does differ, But apart from size and governance, I have yet to see whether differences with public schools extend into the organization, curriculum, and instruction. 

Organizationally, regular and charter schools are similar. Like 99 percent of U.S. schools, nearly all charter schools are age-graded. Charter high schools have block schedules for classes, advisory systems, and principals just like many public schools. Because charters must adhere to state curriculum, testing, and accountability regulations, there is little difference between regular and charter school curricula except perhaps in charters offering more and innovative electives in secondary schools. Finally, insofar as instruction, I have observed few differences between charter school and regular school teaching. Nor have I seen studies that reveal clear differences in instruction between charters and regular schools. Insofar as academic outcomes, studies are mixed when it comes to charters outperforming regular schools (see here here, and here).

Overall, then, charter schools have expanded the menu of choices available to parents. What gives charters heft in the decentralized system of U.S. schooling is an active infrastructure of stable political support. Not only from parents, and segments of both political parties–Presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump have all endorsed charters–but also state and local coalitions, including donors, have helped make the innovation a permanent part of U.S. tax-supported public schools across many school districts. New Orleans, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and a few other cities, for example, have nearly half to all public schools designated as charters in their systems. Yet this handful of cities are a drop in the bucket of urban districts in the nation. And when one examines states such as Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Florida and Michigan where enrollments in charter schools are highest, the range is between 10-17 percent of all students. With 13,000-plus districts in 50 states and D.C., charters have surely found a niche in the U.S. decentralized system of tax-supported public schools. But in 2020, they still occupy a niche. That’s it.

In short, after a quarter-century charter schools–an innovative way to govern, fund, and organize public schools–are persistent, admired by many (but by no means, all), yet marginal to the ongoing daily work of schooling America’s children and youth. A success story but limited in its reach.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...